As I've discussed before, things often get uncomfortable when authors from the amorphous world of “literary fiction” crossover to the world of science fiction. You get elaborate excuses from the likes of Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut about how their dystopias and time travel space epics ARE NOT science fiction, and the major awards promptly ignore and reject their work (unless it’s the first year of the Clarke). I can’t say things went all that differently with this novel by a young lit fic sensation – I don’t see it on any sf award nominee lists – but this does feel well grounded in the world of sf. In fact, this novel read a lot like Vinge’s Rainbow’s End (review coming soon), touching as it does on singularity and post-humans, social networking, physical books, and generational issues. But, it’s like awesomely way better.
Set in the post-literate near future, we follow the journal of Lenny Abramov, the almost-forty son of Jewish-Russian immigrants to New York who acquires clients for a company offering immortality treatments. Abramov is something of a throwback, he likes actual physical books, and he, like, reads every word of writers like Tolstoy and Chekhov. On a business trip in Italy, he falls in love with a boisterous-but-damaged girl in her early twenties named Eunice Park. We alternate that journal with emails and chats from Eunice, who thinks she could score a hotter guy, but Lenny seems so sincere and easy. They move in together in Manhattan, in an America in steep decline. Debts are heavy all around, people with low credit ratings are discriminated against, America is losing another foreign intervention in Venezuela, privatized National Guardsmen harass people on the streets, and the world has become shallow and obsessed with their rankings on social networks, which are displayed on apparati (basically smaller iPhones with more social networking features).
So, lots ofcyberpunk/dystopian material we’ve seen before, as I mentioned, but the differences are huge and all fall in Shteyngart’s favor. Most importantly, Lenny and Eunice are incredibly rich characters. They both can annoy, they both make bad choices, and their relationship is a trainwreck, but they also both feel real, and even young shallow Eunice has hidden depths of compassion. This deft touch with character is what sets some these literary types apart, and I do think it speaks to all that crossovers have to offer in an area where science fiction has been, traditionally, pretty weak.
Maybe I'm biased because Shteyngart clearly shares my anti-singularity, anti-post-human pessimism in another clear difference from most sf these days. For Vernor Vinge, the destruction of books and the alienation of the elder generation are birth pangs on the way to something bigger (man, I wish I'd gotten to my review of Rainbow's End before this), but Shteyngart focuses on the class issues and the unpredictability of technological advance. Of course, post-human technology will be the province of the super-rich for a long time, and of course there will be setbacks and unintended consequences. Shteyngart is clearly aware of the discussion of these issues within science fiction, and he makes some smart, incisive additions to the debate. That said, I’m not so convinced that the US will collapse into a corporate security state, but there’s plenty of echoes of our reality to keep things believable.
The one area where I felt the book did fail, and even admitted defeat to some extent, was in the portrayal of a post-literate world. Yes, people think books are smelly and gross, and no one seems to have the attention span to focus on longer pieces of text, but Shteyngart’s voice for Eunice is full of evocative language. He even has characters comment on this, calling her a “born writer.” There’s clear growth in her style throughout the book as well, and I couldn’t help but feel that this was part character development and part Shteyngart throwing in the towel on writing a solid portion of a novel in semi-literate txt speech.
Either way, I really enjoyed this novel. It has a lot to say about love, relationships, and mortality, and it says it all while presenting an insightful view of the future. It’s everything I want from science fiction; who cares if it’s written by someone not so immersed in the genre (has anyone not in the SFWA ever gotten a Nebula nomination?) Maybe we can set up some sort of lit fic/sff exchange program?