I’ve been thinking about this post for nearly two weeks now, bad for my status as a blogger I know, which is funny in itself. This post began as a glib and valueless bit of snark about Mitt Romney’s inability to simply buy the election. Then as September 11th evolved, Mitt-ish events climbed up a tree and began throwing poo at everyone. As a result, this post has had to evolve in my subconscious before I could address it properly. To take my mind off it I’ve consumed Scinemax’s Strike Back, loading up my forebrain with soft-core sex and explosions.
I also read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas as part of another blogligation. There are parallels in what I have to say about both things—Mitt Romney and Cloud Atlas, not my speculation about whether we’ll be treated to Rhona Mitra in the the buff.
Cloud Atlas and Conventions of Literary Futurism
Cloud Atlas is a fine book with some flaws. Its structure is its most distinctive feature and it is David Mitchell himself that makes the best non-spoiler comment about it, in the voice of Robert Frobisher:
Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late, but it’s the first thing I think of when I wake, and the last thing I think of before I fall asleep, even if J. is in my bed. She should understand, the artist lives in two worlds.
The structure is not a flaw except in the shameless way it requires the reader to complete the book to figure out if it’s any good, or at least not too annoying. The book is, in fact, not too annoying, but that’s because only three-elevenths of the story is set in the future. Like so many works of literary futurism, Mitchell’s take on the future is a tragically sad bit of angsty, tearjerking humbuggery.
Margaret Atwood and seemingly every other future vision that gains acclaim in the literary world presents technology as magically self-defeating when it is mixed with human agency. Our moral flaws will lead us to a techno-doom where the best we can hope for is to sink into an illiterate, unremembering de-evolutionary twilight. Because of… slavery, plague, and cannibalism? These are sins and afflictions that have only been undercut in a lasting way by technology, libraries, and human communication, but in the future they get worse?
Mitchell follows in these footsteps. Sigh.
Democracy’s Denouement Deemed Robotic and Out-of-Touch
Carefully limited communication and controlled presentation of information have been the foundation element of another, less literary trope. On Fox News, the bravest face they’ve been able to put on their latest losing endeavor is to embrace the world of Mitt Romney’s “gaffes.” “Own it!” they cry. Regarding the very latest, they declare that the 47% is indeed lazy and doesn’t pay taxes—directly in the face of evidence to the contrary and confusion about which 47% is being referred to at any one moment. For example, the 47% that (in theory) don’t pay income tax are not the same 47% that are committed to Obama. White working poor are overrepresented in the first group but underrepresented in the second. If the number “47” is really a thing, it is a coincidence. Conflating these various populations is similar to the idea of not having to worry about the thirty thousand people killed by guns every year because the same thirty thousand people have already been killed in traffic accidents. *
*Note, I’m not claiming that 30k people are being killed every year by either cause. If they were, however, they would be separate populations. And yes, I realize that the mutual exclusivity of these populations is the exact opposite fallacy. Think of it this way: if it were possible to be both killed by gunfire and a traffic accident in one year, being killed by gunfire would not necessarily mean you’d have to be killed in a traffic accident. My point is that there are many wrong ways of looking at a number.
Going back to the most recent September 11th exercise which spawned my extended spasm of paralyzed amusement, Fox and Romney both pushed the meme “Obama apologized for the 1st amendment!” in the middle of an ongoing, tragic international crisis. This was a hastily designed fantasy for insertion into our moral consciousness. Instead of taking hold in the larger world, the idea paused during its consumption in other channels. The charge became news in itself: contemplated, considered and ridiculed, becoming a complete reversal of the intended propaganda. Typical for this campaign cycle, Romney and his fellow travelers have not been able to convert their corporate power and wealth directly into corporeal power. The attempt to do so is becoming more nakedly transparent.
I’ll leave aside the possibility of a conspiracy by the librul media to distort everything Romney does into a caricature of badly-calculated and cockeyed flailings. I’m going to assume for the sake of argument that Romney is what he appears to be: a well-connected finance operator who has swum far away from his native audience of like-minded investor douchebags, political operatives and doting but blinded fellow Mormons.
Malthus Takes a Holiday
From the point of view of a writer of science-fiction, the hilarious failure of the Corporate CEO-King in the real world poses a dilemma: how do we take seriously the ever-raining cyberpunk twilight of franchise municipalities and walking organ farms? Why instead is the Romney Future turning out to be the finely-combed tip of a cold and putrescently melting berg of incompetent LaRouchiite zombies who rant about mud people and the fall of Gold from Holy Grace? Why is Papa Song sucking so badly at his job?
One issue is the fact that a common trope of the future, the inevitability of Malthusian collapse, is being found wanting in the real world. It was found wanting in the 19th century in England; it was found wanting in the mid-20th century in Europe, Russia, Japan and the United States; it was found wanting in China, Korea, Turkey and Iran in the late 20th, and the Malthusian Apocalypse is found wanting everywhere else which has educated the other half of its population and given it the right not to be baby-slaves.
So Malthus and his collapse isn’t looking so inevitable as he did twenty or thirty or two hundred years ago. Yet in Cloud Atlas he appears in the corporate future as a revered prophet in statue form. It’s appropriate that the evil corporate state put it there but the statue should be a forgotten target of ridicule—or just target practice—and not a warning.
I Blame George Lucas
Because why not? Yes, his dystopias seemed hip and edgy in the 70s but it turns out that like every other evidence-averse, reactionary democracy-hater working in fantasy and science fiction, he’s a frightened amoral zombie making up cockeyed bullshit to warn us of an even worse horde of frightened amoral zombies hot on his heels. Or robots with magic underwear.
Since then, to guarantee an audience the future has to be crappy with acid-spewing aliens popping out of every cavity and neutral, atmospheric endings turned ludicrously happy or “properly” edgy and depressing.
And somewhere in there vampires became killable. Was that Lucas? Or was it Ann Rice gone wild with world-building? Vampires (the past) should be known, respected, and feared while people (the future) should be imagined to continue existing, being born, living, and dying, regardless of the plastic-to-ichor ratio of their flesh.
I Don’t Blame David Mitchell
Whaddaya gonna do? The book needed eyeballs and it was published eight years ago when corporate idiots seemed destined to be in charge forever, so if less than a third of the book makes me feel manipulated and grumpy, I can live with that given its redeeming features.
Cloud Atlas is a cleverly crafted work with engaging structure and images and several interesting characters. That may be the reverse of the typically successful formula but it works here. Hopefully in the Wachowski Siblings’ movie it will be the structure, images, and characters that shine through and not the gloomy stereotype of a future.