Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Real-Town Murders, or, Why I Joined the Church of Freedom

Some time around the middle of 2017 I experienced a conversion/'breakdown'.  It's related to a new word I learned in Adam Roberts's latest wonderful novel The Real-Town Murders (RTM).  That word is 'metanoia', and at first I thought it simply meant 'more than paranoid,' but after looking it up on a 'feed' I realised it means much more than that.  Metanoia, I think, is paranoia to the level of conversion, when it gets so bad that you have no choice but to give in.  Reading RTM made me metanoid.

I like to think of what happened to me in 2017 as something like my PK Dick moment.  Later, upon reflection, I realised I'd been living my life chaotically and that it was time to buckle down.  So I dove deep down into science fiction and fantasy to find the stabilising element.

It was there, believe me.  It helps that my mother is a huge SF fan, and she actually originally got me into this stuff.  We used to sit in my aunt's old room at my grandmother's house in Stigler Oklahoma reading the pulps that lined one whole wall.  My aunt had collected these (because she was a voracious and compulsive reader) along with a whole bunch of 'good' science fiction (Heinlein, Bradbury, LeGuin and the like) and some fantasy (Tolkien, etc).

But like many before me I, at some blurry point in the past, discarded my love of SF as being an adolescent fixation, unhealthy and unrelated to 'serious' literature.  Never mind that I had a very broad and open-minded concept of literature that included philosophy and works like Origin of Species (and now, I believe Kant's Critique of Pure Reason to be a work of literature (not just philosophy) as well).

Fast forward a couple of decades (as I say, it's blurry), and in mid-writing 'crisis' I discover a quirky little novel that turns out to be a genre-bending masterwork.  That book is The Thing Itself, the book Roberts wrote a couple of years before RTM.   TTI remains my favourite, but RTM is great in its own special way.

There are a lot of laughs and a lot of poetry in The Real-Town Murders.  But poetry and humour aside (and he is one of the funniest novelists I've read: I think BĂȘte is probably the funniest novel I've read), I really read these novels for the philosophy and for the sketches of societal implications of technology.

On the latter subject, I teach, at Royal Holloway, on subjects related to social implications of geospatial technologies, so RTM resonates for me.  Not quite as much as TTI did, but that's just me, really.   RTM hasn't been so much of a conversion experience (though I did learn that cool new word, metanoia), as it has been a reminder of how deeply imbricated (and implicated) surveillant and invasive technologies already are.

So, no big surprise, RTM is about now!  And that is what is so cool about SF: it's always about now.  There's no time-machine, no teleportation, those things are impossible (as Roberts reminds us).  At the same time, we get a flying car, we get Shine.  I became deeply immersed into RTM right away, and from that moment you couldn't pull me away.

But books are lovely that way.  Reading them doesn't kill you.  Your muscles don't atrophy.  I went for a couple of runs in between bouts of reading.  I was having a field day.  And that, ultimately, is just what this book is, so I urge anyone who might be reading this blog post to read it.

Roberts is one of many on my list of the patron saints of SF literature, and that list includes Nina Allan, Paul McAuley, and William Gibson (many echoes here of WG).

The elephant shaped hole in this review, of course, is my lack of knowledge of Alfred Hitchcock, around whom so much of RTM revolves.  There's a whole bevy of clever allusions to all things Hitchcock, especially The Birds, who here become drones.  This part I got, and it works brilliantly.

I hear they are about to outlaw the use of drones in conjunction with VR.  I've also read elsewhere that VR will never be as big as the smartphone.  These are no-brainers really.  The Shine (Roberts' word for a dystopian all-pervasive addictive form of societal VR, almost like an STD in a way), well we never really go in there thankfully.  Not like, maybe, William Gibson would have (or has, really, in his books Neuromancer and The Peripheral especially).

But this is the strength of RTM.  It is its own thing.  Find this thing and read it, in itself.  You won't be disappointed.

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