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Just About Now

The Agony Column for March 11, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


A contender for the most famous date in Science Fiction history is a journey down memory lane for denizens of its own future.

Readers of science fiction have come to expect the future. It sounds funny when you say it. But today's date is beyond that of one of SF's most famous works by one of SF's most famously correct predictive authors. I have a very particular memory of 1971, standing at the white telephone in our kitchen and thinking that someday, I would be living in the future. Everything would be different. But as much as everyone and their brother is trying to tell us that "Now, everything is different" that's not the case. And as fascinating as it was, the novel and the movie '2001' told us more about their own present than they did about our future.


Another future that we've passed in our hurry to get on with our lives. But the book's present will forever haunt us.

Perhaps my favorite anecdote about early science fiction is that George Orwell wanted to title another famous date novel '1948', but his publishers forbade him to do so. Whether or not it's authentic, it points to a very important fact about science fiction. It's always written in the past. By the time those pages appear in front of your face, at the time you immerse yourself in any author's vision of the future, you are actually experiencing the past, or at best, the present. For all the research, for all the "futurology", the science fiction writers of the past have about the same correct predictive average as psychics. To be sure, they have a lot more interesting things to say -- about the present. Psychics offer gossip. Science fiction writers offer vision.


Thomas M. Disch's 'The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of' maps out the relationship between science fiction and literature.

This isn't anything new to science fiction readers. We know that it's all about the present, though when a writer hits a homerun prediction, or creates a convincing well-researched world of the future based on some interesting present-day science, we certainly want to believe. And yes, the world has evolved to match the maps laid out by some science fiction writers. Thomas M. Disch wrote a whole book about this titled 'The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of'. It's one of those cases where a title nearly obviates the requirement to read the book. Nearly. Disch is a true visionary and a true scholar.


The larval form of today's SF blockbuster was considered an art film when it was first released, and a huge financial investment in a genre that most thought did not deserve it.

When '2001' was first written, SF was still outside the mainstream. Now, in a world dominated by events straight out of SF speculation, where SF rules the box office in such eye-candy spectaculars as the 'Matrix' and 'Star Wars' movies, SF is the mainstream. It's much harder to claim outsider status based on the genre. It's also harder to control the boundaries of the genre. It's not just what is in 'Analog'. I've just read a couple of borderline SF novels that are clearly not intended for the Analog set. While they both effectively use the tropes and tricks of SF, they're both effective fakers, leaf-insect fiction that resembles SF, will hook SF readers but in the first, second and final analysis have little to do with technophiliac power fantasies.

But wait --there's more. They both strike the same vibe, and together make for a fascinating bout of echo-based reading. One calls, the other answers. One turns left, the other turns right. Turn right enough times, and you might as well have turned left -- and vice versa. Both are first novels by women who have nailed down the future as the best place to set a novel about the present. And both are first novels by women who have seen too many commercials featuring Fabio. I think they're still buying butter.


'Scorch' was the first of two eerily similar SF novels about the present.

The first book in this pairing I read was A. D. Nauman's 'Scorch'; the second was Lisa Lerner's 'Just Like Beauty'. Separately, each has humor, satire, vision, some good prose. Together, however, they clearly become more than the sum of their parts. They're rather different from one another. 'Scorch' is a polemic dystopian novel, a vision of America as a marketplace gone mad. Arel Ashe, the third person focus of 'Scorch' is a single woman is a world that is fragmenting humanity. She starts the novel harried and ends up hunted. She's driven, not by noble qualities, but like a head of cattle in a herd. Surrounded by the clamor of shrieking advertisements, she's a cog in the penultimate consuming machine. She has little racial, ethnic or personal identity beyond the societal requirement that she earn more than she consumes. But she's the cog that finds some books. For a moment, the gear slips. And the novel begins.


'Just Like Beauty' is both very different from and very similar to 'Scorch'.

On the other hand, in 'Just Like Beauty' Edie Stein is a typical teenager, with a very specific Jewish ethnic identity, in a quirky world where the Beauty Pageant includes events like the Mystery Powders Competition and large Number Estimation. She's hesitant to bring her genius bunny, Alice Jones to the Sacrificial Rabbit event. She doesn't live in an anonymous, consumptive city but a pest-ridden suburb. And she's just a girl about to grow up, on the cusp of making a crucial transformation from child to woman. Curiously, though her world is more bucolic and seemingly less "scientifically advanced" than that of "Scorch", it seems to be set farther in the future, though it is deliberately difficult to tell. Where 'Scorch' does very well with integrating it's future with our present, 'Just Like Beauty' gets almost jarring when it mentions events or people recognizable from our world. But Lerner's endearing first-person protagonist is after all, barely more than a child. Lerner effectively displays a child's understanding of her world.

A. D. Nauman writes for Soft Skull Publishers, a small press that specializes in radical books. She lives in Chicago, so she has a reasonable experience of the world she creates.

Lisa Lerner lives in a New York City that currently bears more resemblance to the world created by A. D. Nauman than the world of her own novel 'Just Like Beauty'.

But both writers display remarkable -- and remarkably similar -- understanding of our world. Lerner shows us the view from the hard right, in a suburb where everything is beautiful, and the incidence of breast cancer is 1 in 2. Nauman shows us the world from the hard left, in a human consuming consumer machine where the lower rungs of the ladder are encouraged to sell one another to prisons. There may not be star travel in Nauman's world, but the income gap is astronomical.

Working in the background of both books is an understanding and a vision of the effect of today's rapidly shrinking world of commerce. The effects of globalization clearly terrify each writer, and they've come up with their own nightmare scenarios. What makes them readable and enjoyable is that the characters in the novel do not perceive their world as a nightmare, nor do they really perceive the corporate cause of the nightmare. Or only barely. The reader -- firmly placed in a present that is rapidly becoming the past -- can see the history of these writer's worlds in the front pages of today's newspaper. And advertised on TV.

The power of advertising is another force that lurks behind both these works. In fact, the writers have even invested a large amount of invention and imagination in a similar joke. In Nauman's world, there are a plethora of 'Just About..' products; in Lerner's, the 'Just Like Conglomerate' manages to seep into the title of the novel. Both writers are focused on the ersatz nature of the lives their characters lead -- on the lives we lead. It's a life in which a substitute takes on the importance of an original that has disappeared or is no longer accessible except to the ultra-rich, a life where third and fourth generation carbon copies compete for our attention. It's a snapshot from the land of Sequels. What installment of the current science fiction series are YOU reading?

It's not just the un-originality of our world that has struck these authors in the forehead. They've also both apparently glommed onto the next craze in cruelty -- burning. No longer content with mace or pepper spray, the denizens of Nauman's 'Scorch' are unsurprisingly armed with tiny blow torches to burn the repellent street people who dare accost them. The title comes from a term in Nauman's world that refers to the fool in her culture's Adstories -- the man or woman who is punished for their non-conformity. In Lerner's world, Edie is menaced by a gang known as the Blow Torchers, teenaged boys who will deliberately disfigure Pageant contestants. Either world, no matter how filled with Beauty or consumption, is a rather more dangerous place to live than one would like to think of our world today as being. If of course, one were prone to be a bit on the delusional side.

From the way their work is shaped, from the hints within the writing, it's not clear if either writer is going to continue writing science fiction. Neither novel is from one of the major SF houses, and they don't have too much of an SF feel to them. But separately -- and especially together -- they tell us something interesting about our world in the way that science fiction does best. These novels comprise different parts of a fascinating conversation that neither novelist is aware they are taking part in. They are both just about science fiction. They look like it, they take place in the future like SF. But for all the future in each novel, by the time you finish them, you'll realize that they're both just about now.




Rick Kleffel