Mat Johnson Invisible Things book review

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Back in 2011, I reviewed Mat Johnson’s “Pym,” a wildly entertaining serio-comic novel that revisits – and updates – Edgar Allan Poe’s enigmatic, racially charged fantasy, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon’s Pym of Nantucket.” In it, a completely black expedition to Antarctica reveals something seemingly impossible in the ice, and which I will not say more about. Just grab a copy of this very funny, thoughtful book.

Or better yet, read Johnson’s latest, “Invisible Things,” again a work of cultural and political satire, but this time framed around a disturbing discovery on Jupiter’s moon Europe. Before we get to that, though, take a closer look at the novel’s opening:

“After months in the deep space, where I conducted an intensive field study of social dynamics aboard the cryoship SS Delany, Nalini Jackson, NASAx Post-Doctorate Fellow of Applied Sociology, DA Sc., Came to an unpleasant conclusion: She did not really like people at all. It was an embarrassing realization given that her life’s work was to study them. “

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A lot happens in these sentences, but wait a moment over SS Delany, who will later be joined by another cryoship called SS Ursula 50. What is the point of these obvious reflexes to Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin, two of the most admired science fiction writers of our time? A small tribute, of course, but Johnson can also signal that a person’s race and sexual identity in this future – prominent concerns of Delany and Le Guin – are no longer hotspots. It takes a while for the reader to experience that Nalini is black, and even longer to realize that her colleague ne Causwell is both gay and black. These facts play virtually no role in history. What really matters are economic, theological and political systems and how they shape a society.

Though science fiction tends to take place in the future, it is always basically about the present. As Nalini notes on the other side of the novel, we need space travel as a safeguard against extinction. “If humans did not achieve this goal, the only unanswered question would be what combination of consequences for humanity’s collective sins would cause the fatal blow. Climate destruction, nuclear Armageddon, systemic xenophobia, virulent bias, pandemics… were all strong opponents. Disasters were dazzling, but as an academic, Nalini was most impressed with humanity’s ability to embrace the delusion that everything was in order. “

All this sounds a lot like Now. And yet, look again at the two quoted passages: Their relaxed tone, the swing in their prose, their irony are light years away from the styles of digging Le Guin and experimental Delany. Moreover, Johnson’s knowledge of science fiction is not limited to these two fashionably acclaimed authors. Characters or events in his book are reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Sirens of Titan” and “Cat’s Cradle”; Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”, especially the story “Mars is Heaven!”; Robert A. Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” – Dwayne is a bit like a mix of Jubal Harshaw and Valentine Michael Smith; various “Twilight Zone” episodes; and even the B-movie classic “Forbidden Planet,” best known for its invisible “Monsters from the Id.”

Given Johnson’s daily job as a professor at the University of Oregon, it’s therefore tempting to use the language of literary theory and call “Invisible Things” a loving, intertextual construction that draws on half the troops of modern sf. Yet the awareness of echoes and loans just enriches an already intriguing story. During SS Delany’s flight past Europe, photography drones take up an unexpected bubble shape on the moon’s surface. It can only be a biodome. Close-ups then reveal that inside there is an actual football pitch. “With white streaks sprayed on the grass, raised seating and just beyond the field itself, a parking lot filled with cars.”

It turns out that the inhabitants of “New Roanoke” have all been “gathered” from Earth. According to officially accepted dogma, every single citizen was chosen by God, in fact, “delighted”. Yet in this bio-dome-shaped sky one finds all the shops, fast food restaurants, class inequalities and political harassment we know from Earth. Everything that Nalini notices is “creepy, nauseating the same,” right down to the blonde TV anchor that looks like she’s molded out of wax.

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Most people believe that it is impossible to leave the dome, and resign themselves to creating as good a life there as possible. Bob Seaford, the ambitious former captain of Delany, is in full swing with Stockholm Syndrome, and quickly embraces the founders’ policy, a conservative, tradition-bound group that over the years has “transitioned from a moderate democratic force to an almighty, toxic” nativist For its members, New Roanoke is “the place where the American dream still lives.”

Or is it? Mysterious creatures called the “invisible things” supply the population with food and supplies and probably orchestrate the periodic gathering of new arrivals. Johnson never explains these unseen entities, but they may well represent, metaphorically, any of the anti-democratic gods of modern society, whether it be technological monopolies, political dark money, or many social media, all of which secretly seek to control it. world, they move in. into and thus become demonic inversions of Adam Smith’s free market “Invisible Hand”. No matter what that In the event that any reference to the existence of “Invisible Things” is blasphemy that may inflict on you their unwanted, perhaps deadly attention.

It’s clear that a reader only needs to squint a little to see that Johnson regularly points to Trump’s United States. After all, “members of the Founders’ Party believe in democracy – they just do not believe that anyone who can not afford to rig an election should be able to win one.”

Overall, though, it hardly gives its sense and energy to quote a few passages from “Invisible Things,” though things get a little heavy in the second half. At the time, a parallel plot line – which I have not even hinted at – led to a major political and cultural crisis on “New Roanoke.” As a final act of pulp chutzpah, Johnson’s last page suddenly presents a melodramatic image that could easily have graced the cover of some 1940s editions of Astounding or Thrilling Wonder Stories.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

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