Or better yet, read Johnson’s latest “Invisible Things,” again a work of cultural and political satire, but this time around a disturbing discovery on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Before we get to that, though, let’s take a close look at the opening of the novel:
“After months in deep space conducting an intensive field study of social dynamics aboard the cryoship SS Delany, Nalini Jackson, NASAx Postdoctoral Fellow in Applied Sociology, DA Sc., came to an uncomfortable conclusion: She didn’t really like people, on the whole. It was an embarrassing realization given that his life’s work was to study them.
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There’s a lot going on in these sentences, but pause for a moment on the SS Delany, which would later be joined by a second cryoship called SS Ursula 50. What is the point of these obvious genuflections to Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin, two of the most admired science fiction writers of our time? A small act of tribute, obviously, but Johnson can also point out that in this future, a person’s race and sexual identity — Delany and Le Guin’s primary concerns — are no longer flashpoints. It takes a while for the reader to learn that Nalini is black and even longer to realize that her fellow ne Causwell is both gay and black. These facts play almost no role in the story. What is really important are the economic, theological and political systems and how they shape a society.
However science fiction tends to be about the future, it’s always fundamentally about the present. As Nalini observes on the second page of the novel, we need space travel as protection against extinction. “If humans failed to achieve this goal, the only unanswered question would be what combination of consequences for the collective sins of humanity would deliver the fatal blow. Climate devastation, nuclear Armageddon, systemic xenophobia, virulent partisanship, pandemics… were all strong contenders. The range of cataclysms was dazzling, but as a scholar, Nalini was greatly impressed by humanity’s ability to embrace the illusion that all was well.
It all sounds a lot like Now. And yet, review the two quoted passages: Their casual tone, the swing of their prose, their irony are light years away from the styles of the serious Le Guin and the experimental Delany. Moreover, Johnson’s knowledge of science fiction is not limited to these two fashionable authors. The characters or events in his book are reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Sirens of Titan” and “Cat’s Cradle”; “The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury, especially the story “Mars is Heaven!”; ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ by Robert A. Heinlein – Dwayne looks a bit like a mix of Jubal Harshaw and Valentine Michael Smith; various episodes of “Twilight Zone”; and even the B-movie classic “Forbidden Planet,” particularly notable for its unseen “Id Monsters.”
Given Johnson’s day-to-day work as a professor at the University of Oregon, it is therefore tempting to use the language of literary theory and label “Invisible Things” an affectionate, intertextual construct, which draws inspiration from half of modern SF tropes. Still, the awareness of echoes and borrowings only enriches an already fascinating story. During the SS Delany’s overflight of Europa, photographic drones record an unexpected bubble shape on the surface of the moon. It can only be a bio-dome. Close-up imagery then reveals that inside is a real football pitch. “With white lines sprayed on the grass, raised seating and just beyond the pitch itself, a parking lot full of cars.”
It turns out that the people of “New Roanoke” were all “collected” from Earth. According to officially sanctioned dogma, every citizen has been chosen by God, in effect, “abducted.” Yet within this bio-dome paradise are all the shopping, fast food, class inequality and political bickering we know on Earth. Everything, as Nalini observes, is “creepy, nauseating, the same thing”, down to the blonde TV presenter who looks like she’s been cast in wax.
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Believing it impossible to leave the dome, most people resign themselves to living there as best they can. In the midst of Stockholm Syndrome, Bob Seaford, the ambitious former captain of the Delany, quickly adopted the politics of the Founders, a conservative and traditional group which, over the years, had “transitioned from a moderate democratic force to a almighty poisonous force. , nativist party. For its members, New Roanoke is “the place where the American dream lives on”.
Where is it? Mysterious beings called the “Things Invisible” supply the population with food and supplies and, presumably, orchestrate the periodic collection of newcomers. Johnson never explains these invisible entities, but they might well represent, metaphorically, any of the undemocratic deities of modern society, whether it be tech monopolies, black political money, or plenty of social media, who all secretly seek to control the world they move. thus becoming demonic inversions of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the free market. No matter the In this case, any reference to the existence of “unseen things” is blasphemy, likely to draw their unwanted, even deadly attention to you.
Obviously, a reader only has to squint a little to see that Johnson regularly points the finger at the Trumpian United States. After all, Founders Party members “believe in democracy – they just don’t believe that someone who can’t afford to rig an election should be able to win one.”
Overall, though, just quoting a few passages from “Invisible Things” hardly conveys its bounce and energy, even if things get a little heavy in the second half. At this point, a side plot – which I haven’t even hinted at – leads to a major political and cultural crisis over “New Roanoke”. For a final act of pulp chutzpah, Johnson’s final page suddenly presents a melodramatic image that could easily have graced the cover of a 1940s issue of Astounding or Thrilling Wonder Stories.
Michael Dird reviews books for Style every Thursday.
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