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Everyone in Silico, Jim Munroe, No Media Kings, 2002, 241 pp.
Jim Munroe's new novel, Everyone in Silico, is that entirely too rare achievement, an exciting near future story. Science fiction set in a time period too close to our own sometimes suffers from the lack of nifty new speculation, technological, social, or otherwise, all the more disappointing in the genre that should understand the swiftness of change. Everyone in Silico has no such problem: set in Vancouver about 35 years from now, the book is crammed to bursting with fascinating detail and startling social developments. Even more astoundingly, all of this information is smoothly conveyed to the reader, and Munroe achieves this particular holy grail of science fiction, seamless exposition, through the other main strength of the book, the people. Nearly all of the characters in the book are ordinary people, trying to get by in the year 2036 just like they have always done. The feel of the characterization is highly reminiscent of Philip K. Dick's use of "little people", or more recently, the way Rudy Rucker has filled his ongoing *Ware series with winners and losers, oddballs and eccentrics, the powerful and the down and out. Interestingly, in each of these three cases, it can be argued that the choice of the particular set of characters is partially dictated by the authors' intended meaning. More on that in a minute.
The world of 2036 is dominated by Self, the technology that digitizes your brain pattern, transferring your personality to the virtual world known as Frisco and storing your meat body in an undisclosed location. Lovely visions of immortality immediately float in the minds of genre veterans at this prospect, but Munroe carefully breaks down this utopian future into a much closer approximation of reality. Self Corporation is only the latest in a long line of rapacious corporate entities, blinded by the bottom line, and little cognizant of the dangers of monoculture. And this is also a world where anti-shoplifting devices don't spray shoplifters with ink but instead turn them to ash, and striking workers in Third World countries are simply testing grounds for the latest and greatest in western military technology. Self's hard sell takes on a different meaning in this context, and the story of the book concerns those who are not convinced, against all odds and in the face of the overwhelming, self-reinforcing apparatus of wealth, entitlement, ideology, and advertising. Resistance here is perhaps the most difficult struggle of any book I've read, and Munroe's finger-on-the-pulse assessment of rootless and inhuman corporate behavior, as magnified by another 30 years of coming into power, makes the book incredibly depressing, mostly for the seeming accuracy of its speculation. But there's hope as well, however slender.
This hope is based in the characters. Yes, Self and the other companies are unethical and inhuman, but they are made up of real humans, and they must market to real humans, individually. On this case-by-case basis, Munroe rests his hope. Just like Philip K. Dick's characters had to stand firm against the machinations of unsteady reality, Munroe's characters have to make their way in an unfriendly world. And while Rudy Rucker's oddball characters demonstrated that the antiseptic, scientist-in-white-labcoat future would never happen, Munroe's characters have a tougher time of it in a future monopolized not by science, but by commerce. Everyone in Silico features four characters: a young woman named Nicky, who is subversively practicing the abandoned science of genetics and runs with the urban counterculture (or what's left of it, in the wake of Self); a middle-aged coolhunter named Doug, who has lost his touch with his job, many of his clients have fled to Self, and his wife doesn't know about their financial problems; an elderly woman named Eileen, a former corporate assassin who has turned some of her skills against Self upon the disappearance of her nephew; and most mysteriously, a man named Paul, who seems to be part of the power structure of Self, but has his own goals. Everyone in Silico is not a tightly plotted book, and Munroe wisely relies on his characters to garner our sympathies and keep us interested. In some ways, the book is a slice of life story, but Munroe has made the day-to-day details of the future as interesting as possible.
It's fruitful to ponder the book of the standpoint of literary theory, particularly using the idea of mystification from ideological studies. To mystify in this sense is to erase the concrete details of a situation by discussing it in the abstract, like the excesses and contradictions of colonialism excused by the idea of the white man's burden. In Everyone in Silico, Munroe tries to show exactly what the bright, shiny concepts of globalization mean in practice, extrapolated out over 30 years. Science fiction lets writers literalize the metaphors we live by, as a means of examining them, and here Munroe conveys quite clearly his point of view that aspects of the current economic system may as well be a declaration of war against the less well off. Those benefited by the system live with consciences unpricked because the history of the plentiful goods at hand and on store shelves, the very information that might cause change, is erased. Of course a tool like the idea of mystification cuts two ways: it could be argued that Munroe is busy doing some mystification of his own with this book, corporate behaviour today is not precisely war, and so forth. The practical difference lies in the openness of Munroe's position to questioning.
Everyone in Silico is independently published and puts 99 percent of other books on the market to shame. It's quite simply one of the most handsome editions on my shelf. And kudos to Munroe for taking the anti-corporate fight beyond the covers of this book: check Munroe's No Media Kings website (www.nomediakings.org) for a hilarious series of letters he wrote to big companies like McDonald's and Coke, charging them for "product placements" in the book. I'll close my review with a sample product placement (which should give a pretty good indication of why his past due invoices will never get paid!).
Last modified: April 7, 2002
Copyright © 2002 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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