While you’re thinking about buying that new technological gadget for the holidays, you may also want to look your way toward that most analog of gifts, a novel. The three new releases in this week’s book club introduce us to varying degrees of technical dystopia, as new technologies make their characters question their life choices, live out re-educating punishments, and turn into easily controlled mobs via a simple virus. They serve as cautionary tales for our digitally dependent present. (But, okay, you can get them on an e-reader.)
1. Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates ($27): “Hereby, entered on this 19th day June NAS-23 in the 16th Federal District, Eastern-Atlantic States, a warrant for the arrest, detention, reassignment and sentencing of STROHL, ADRIANE S., 17, daughter of ERIC and MADELEINE STROHL, 3911 N. 17th St., Pennsboro, N.J., on seven counts of Treason-Speech and Questioning of Authority in violation of Federal Statutes 2 and 7. Signed by order of Chief Justice H.R. Sedgwick, 16th Federal District.”
Adriane Strohl lives in a not-too-distant-future United States, a chillingly recognizable dystopia where obedience to an iron-fisted ruling class is the only option for survival, and your skin color is inextricably linked to your class. Independent thought is seen as dangerous, and asking pointed questions can get you severely punished. There are public punishments — required viewing during Execution Hours, of course, but the worst punishment is to be “Deleted,” to simply be vaporized from existence, physically and socially. Family and friends are instructed to forget you, unable to even speak your name from then on. Adriane’s father is an MI (Marked Individual) who was caught just listening to prohibited ideas in a government sweep; formerly an MD, he’s now unable to practice medicine and must constantly express gratitude that he was even allowed to live. He knows what could happen; his 23-year-old brother Tobias was Deleted years ago.
Though Adriane grows up in a cautious household (albeit one that refuses to switch the TV on during Execution Hours), she makes a daring choice in her high school valedictorian speech and asks one too many questions. Her treasonous thoughts cause her to receive the strangest punishment of all: She’s sent back with time-travel technology to a “re-education camp,” a women’s college in 1959 Wisconsin. If Adriane becomes the model 1950s feminine ideal and blends in, she may get a second chance; if she rebels, Deletion awaits. Despite the threat, Adriane finds herself unable to comply; with the help of a psychology professor who may be there for the same reason, she begins to think about revolution.
2. Come With Me by Helen Schulman ($27): We’ve all had a case of the “what-ifs” before: What if I hadn’t made that choice? What if I’d gone to a different school, moved to a different city, married a different person? But what if you could actually find out what would have happened? Amy Reed lives in Silicon Valley with her unemployed journalist husband, Dan, and their three sons, including a pair of young identical twins. Her busy life running the household is supplemented by the PR work she does for Donny, a Stanford junior and son of her college roommate. Donny, like everyone else, runs a tech company that touts new advances such as Invisible E-nk, emails that disappear after you’ve read them so there’s no chance of a paper trail for your online behavior. But while E-nk has Snapchat to contend with, nobody has anything quite like Furrier.com.
Furrier, named after Donny’s grandmother’s running complaint that she should have married the furrier, creates “what could have been” multiverses for the curious. This, needless to say, has the potential to open up a door of longing one can’t close; is it better not to know or to know your life would have been more successful given one decision or moment? Amy is to act as the first test subject for Furrier’s abilities. Meanwhile, Dan gets an offer to cover the Fukushima disaster alongside a beautiful, tempting photographer, the unbalanced twins have serious trouble in school, and (like it or not) everyone remains glued to their devices. Did Amy have her best possible life, and will she decide to change it? The novel’s description of three non-consecutive — but essential — days in her life will hold the answer.
“‘So how do we begin?’ she said. ‘You said, “infinite chances, infinite universes.” How do you tease the important stuff out?’ He nodded. For the first time that morning, he looked, well, serious. Less spectrumy and more engaged. Like he didn’t live on planet Pluto, but right there where she lived, like he lived somewhere on Earth beside her. ‘I’ll take care of the algorithms,’ he said. ‘You take care of the questions.’ She sighed. This was the easy part. She thought about it almost every day. She’d had a therapist once who said the best thing for her to do was to sweep the obsessive thoughts away. For the past twenty-three years, she had been sweeping. ‘What would have happened if she’d lived?’”
3. Spyware: It’s Not What You Think by Colin J. Robertson ($17): “The Senator donned his half moon reading glasses, and peered once more at the patterned surface. The image appeared to shift and move as he looked at it. He grimaced. ‘This some kind of joke?’ At that instant, deep inside the Senator’s brain, a microscopic array of vermilion energy coalesced. It started to storm. Molecular lightning began to fire amid the neurons of his medulla oblongata, disrupting normal behaviours and activity. Jim Townsend opened his mouth in surprise. He gripped his chest, as if attempting to clutch the sharp, stabbing pain that had manifested there. The Senator mouthed seven silent syllables, forming a wordless question. He dropped to his knees. He then fell forward, slammed his face into the snow, kicked once, and was still… The man in rose-coloured glasses calmly plucked the card from the dead Senator’s fingers and pocketed it. He then returned to his idling car and drove away, into the gathering night.”