BOOK REVIEW: Technicolor Ultra Mall by Ryan Oakley

Paul Raven @ 07-10-2011

Technicolor Ultra Mall by Ryan OakleyTechnicolor Ultra Mall by Ryan Oakley

Edge SF&F (Canada), 2011; ~280pp; C$14.95 RRP – ISBN13: 978-1894063548

Budgie is a Vidicon, a member of one of the countless drug-fuelled gangs who fight to the death for territory and prestige in the red levels of the T-Dot ultramall. He sends the last of the Dog Goblins northwards in a gory streetfight, but not before his enemy dispatches his patrol partner Sputnik with a poisoned blade to the jaw. The glory of the kill accrues to Budgie, and Vidicons are no strangers to murder and its consequences, but emotion, sentiment or friendship aren’t covered by the rulebook; there’s no profit in regret or compassion. Gang stuff is just business.

Or so it’s supposed to go, anyway. But after hauling his partner’s dying body to a performance surgeon who fails to save him, Budgie has to face the consequences of the Vidicon lifestyle in something other than the abstract, starting a long painful chain of questions whose answers don’t get any easier to stomach. Meanwhile, the alpha and beta males of the Vidicon hierarchy have their fingers in more rarified pies, like running red-level raves that cater to the slummers who come down from the green levels for a forbidden taste of danger and dirty hedonism. Gammas like Budgie are just disposable tools in their projects, and even as Budgie starts trying to go straight and find a way out of the red levels, he gets entangled in machinations that will not only destroy everything he cares about, but the mall itself.

The consumerist mall-as-dystopia is not a wholly original idea, but I can’t remember ever encountering one so unflinchingly brutal as Technicolor Ultra Mall. From the opening blaze of profanity-peppered violence to the bleak cataclysm of its conclusion, Oakley never eases the pressure, tearing aside the glossy veils of commerce to reveal the cynical profiteering beneath. This book is yet another data point for the adage about science fiction novels being about the time in which they are written more than the time in which they are set, and as the global economy goes from bad to worse it’s only going to look more timely. We already live in Oakley’s mall, sealed off from the over-polluted outside world like the arcologies of the classic satirical RPG Paranoia, everything we see or hear or feel mediated by businesses interests, our politics a polarised red vs. blue puppet show that distracts us from the real game being played by the high rollers, our lingering primate instincts and tribal urges leveraged in order to maintain and prop up a profitable hierarchy.

Technicolor Ultra Mall is primarily about class. The metaphor is as unmissable as it is overamplified for effect: the underground red levels where the gangs roam free along streets full of bars, bordellos and shooting galleries (both kinds), and a crude code of honour is brutally enforced; the middle class green levels, where the warfare is more subtle and your good standing as a (seemingly) upright citizen is equivalent to the rep of a red level gangster; the rarified blue levels, which – fittingly, and true to life – we see very little of at first hand, and whose machinations manifest as turbulence in the layers below, like the vortices caused by a dragnet sweeping through a fishtank. But while class may be the bedrock theme, there’s plenty of other stuff salted away in the plot: radical transhuman technologies (for those who can afford to pay, natch) and their potentially dehumanising side-effects; the psychology of sales and persuasion, and the engineering of consent; satirical critiques of constructed and performative gender and class roles, and of psychiatry-as-character. A selection of vignette stories that feed into to the main narrative make a point of showing how easily manipulated all of us are, even those of us who think ourselves immune to the crude importunings of marketeers; Oakley has evidently studied the art of persuasion very closely, and it’s perhaps Technicolor Ultra Mall‘s greatest triumph that he manages to convincingly portray its insidious power while making it transparent enough that we can see the psychologist/wizard behind the curtain. As a debt-defaulting gambler discovers to his peril, the casino always wins; our statistical illiteracy and blindness to zero-sum games makes marks of us all.

While Budgie’s tragic Orpheus-esque arc is complete, there are a few dropped threads and unexplored alleyways; a late introduction of the possibility of transferring minds between bodies (a fine opportunity to extend the critique of both radical transhumanism and class, of the body as commodity) goes underdeveloped, for example. Some of the anarchist rhetoric comes across as a little crude, but that’s to be expected given the naïvete of the characters giving voice to it; likewise, the underlying metaphor comes on heavy-handed on more than a few occasions, and reading them is like being kicked around a gravel car park by a guy with a point to prove. Technicolor Ultra Mall is inescapably radical in its political outlook, and that alone will put off a certain section of the traditional science fiction market, even as it aligns Oakley along the same refusenik axis as sf authors as diverse as Ballard, Doctorow, Sterling and Dick. There will doubtless be accusations of hypocrisy – how can you critique extreme media sensationalism by using extraordinarily graphic violence? – but there is no glorification here. Quite to the contrary; the violence always serves to illustrate the moral bankruptcy or desperation of its perpetrators, and anyone who can read it as glorious is probably beyond help.

While reading Oakley’s savage prose is like riding the fight-or-flight limbic buzz of an amphetamine high, fans of redemption or happy endings should walk away now and never look back, because Technicolor Ultra Mall will break your bitter heart before hawking it to a black-market organ recycler. But as you do so, consider that your flinching from the cruelty of consumerism’s consequences is exactly what enables them to exist. We all know the mall is cruel, but we all know that it’s easier to play our roles than question the script. Oakley knows how the script ends, but so does anyone else who’s willing to think about it; trouble is, that knowledge comes freighted with an eschatological sense of futility. Technicolor Ultra Mall is a funhouse mirror, and the joke is that we all want to believe that the leering face that looks back at us is anyone else’s but our own. It’s also a rugged and angry début novel from a writer who isn’t afraid to turn the spotlight onto complicity – his own, and everyone else’s. To paraphrase one Michael Franti, “hypocrisy is our greatest luxury”; Oakley dangles the possibility of redemption, or at least individual escape from the system, only to snatch it away at the last.

The comparison isn’t exact, but Technicolor Ultra Mall belongs to the same dystopian school as 1984; Oakley may not yet have that Orwellian mastery of prose, but he has the required acuity of vision, and – most importantly of all – the willpower not to look away as a designer-label bought-on-credit boot stamps on a human face, forever.

[ In the interests of full disclosure: Ryan Oakley is an online buddy, courtesy an introduction from M1k3y of grinding.be, who said something along the lines of “you should really be following this guy, he’s sharp as hell”. It’s a fair description; Oakley’s as keen-eyed, angry and iconoclastic as his novel, and quite possibly the most distinctively-dressed anarchist one could ever hope to meet. ]


Deep worry: writing the meathooks

Paul Raven @ 25-02-2011

Over at SF Signal, John H Stevens pokes through some dystopian short stories to see if he can throw any light on Paolo Bacigalupi’s recent statement: “I’m starting to think that if science fiction isn’t deeply worried about our present, it should be taken out and shot.” From his conclusion:

… my first thought is that SF as a literary field has become somewhat less focused on, less worried about the present. This is not because the genre lacks a focus on politics as a part of speculative storytelling, but because much of that work, while a product that may reflect some ideas and anxieties of its time, do not seem to focus vigorously on current concerns. There are some, certainly, but there seems to be no pervasive sense of “deep worry” across the wider genre. This is a point, however, that I would stress needs more consideration and surveying to answer more concretely.

At the risk of seeming to contradict Stevens using the same evidence, I think the “deep worry” is actually hiding in plain sight. The widespread refusal to grapple with grim meathook futures is the surest sign of existential terror that I can think of, and also displayed itself in the kneejerk rejection of Jetse de Vries’ optimist manifesto – even worse than the prospect of writing about the many possible pitfalls along the civilisational superhighway is the prospect of imagining how we might overcome them! If you’ll forgive me the vanity of quoting myself:

The Future (caps deliberate) was old-school sf’s metanarrative; The Future used to be somewhere awesome and clean which we could either build, conquer or travel to. But the closer we got to the real (uncapitalised) future, the more it looked like… well, a lot like today, really, or even yesterday, only faster, more ruthless, more worn at the corners, and packed full of grim new threats alongside a remarkably persistent cast of old classics (Teh 4 Horsemen Haz A Posse). The future isn’t somewhere that anyone – except possibly the more hardcore transhumanists, who are getting intriguingly vocal and self-assured of late – wants to escape to. Indeed, I think most of us, at some level or another, are more interested in escaping from the future.

[…]

Sf isn’t struggling to catch up with the future; on the contrary, it’s schism’d and reeling from having met the future in person, unexpectedly and with some considerable threat of violence, in an alley behind a franchise restaurant in downtown Mumbai.

Speaking from my own limited personal experience, near-future sf is the subgenre I’m driven to write, but I still feel a sort of paralysis of potentiality every time I start a story; an embarrassment of possible dooms, you might call it. A large part of that paralysis stems from my lack of skill and experience, I fully expect, but another part of the problem is my interest in not just exposing that “deep worry” Stevens talks about but addressing it, too: interrogating it, attempting to answer its concerns, trying to see what people might actually do in a world which – depending on which angle the light catches it – seems on the brink of either catastrophic collapse or civilisational transcendence. As should be obvious to regular readers, that’s an extension of the project that Futurismic has become… unless, perhaps, it’s the other way around.

To be clear, I’m a fellow-traveller of Jetse’s optimist project, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s something all – or even most – writers should be doing: it just sits well with the sorts of stories I want to tell, and the reasons I want to tell them. I’ll leave it to more experienced fiction writers and more widely-read critics to determine whether or not that underlying drive is in some way inimical to the writing of stories that people actually want to read; in the meantime, I figure that the only fair response I can make to my own hypothesis is to get my Ghandi on and become the change I want to see.


The dangerous dream of artificial intelligence

Paul Raven @ 02-09-2009

Robots will inherit the Earth!There are plenty of artificial intelligence skeptics out there, but few of them would go so far as to say that AI is a dangerous dream leading us down the road to dystopia. One such dissenting voice is former AI evangelist and robotics boffin Noel Sharkey, who pops up at New Scientist to explain his viewpoint:

It is my contention that AI, and particularly robotics, exploits natural human zoomorphism. We want robots to appear like humans or animals, and this is assisted by cultural myths about AI and a willing suspension of disbelief. The old automata makers, going back as far as Hero of Alexandria, who made the first programmable robot in AD 60, saw their work as part of natural magic – the use of trick and illusion to make us believe their machines were alive. Modern robotics preserves this tradition with machines that can recognise emotion and manipulate silicone faces to show empathy. There are AI language programs that search databases to find conversationally appropriate sentences. If AI workers would accept the trickster role and be honest about it, we might progress a lot quicker.

NS: And you believe that there are dangers if we fool ourselves into believing the AI myth…

It is likely to accelerate our progress towards a dystopian world in which wars, policing and care of the vulnerable are carried out by technological artefacts that have no possibility of empathy, compassion or understanding.

Now that’s some proper science fictional thinking… although I’m more inclined to a middle ground wherein AI – should we ever achieve it, of course – comes with benefits as well as bad sides. As always, it’s down to us to determine which way the double-edged blade of technology cuts. [image by frumbert]


NEW FICTION: IS THIS YOUR DAY TO JOIN THE REVOLUTION? by Genevieve Valentine

Paul Raven @ 01-09-2009

If you asked me for three words to describe this month’s Futurismic fiction offering, I’d give you “short, sharp and timely”. Genevieve Valentine wastes no words in revitalising (and spoofing) the classic sf dystopias in this brisk story of an all-too-plausible tomorrow. “Is This Your Day To Join The Revolution?” Read on and find out…

Is This Your Day To Join the Revolution?

by Genevieve Valentine

When Liz left her building, Disease Control workers were standing on the corners, handing out pills and little paper cups of Coke.

“Do you need one?” the old lady asked, holding up a handful of paper masks stamped with ads for Lavender Fields Sterile-Milled Soap. Liz pulled out the one she kept in her bag, and the lady smiled.

The TV in her subway car showed “What You Can Do on a Date.” The young man and woman went to the fair twice – once where he screwed everything up, and again where he helped her into the Ferris Wheel and handed her a paper mask before he put on his own.

The movie closed with swelling music and a reminder in cursive: ARE YOU DUE FOR A DATE? CHECK WITH YOUR DOCTOR. Continue reading “NEW FICTION: IS THIS YOUR DAY TO JOIN THE REVOLUTION? by Genevieve Valentine”


The dystopians are out of step: humans are naturally optimistic

Edward Willett @ 26-05-2009

Democritus_by_Agostino_Carracci At least, that’s according to a new study from the University of Kansas and Gallup presented over the weekend at the annual convention of the Association for Psychological Science in San Francisco (via ScienceDaily):

Data from the Gallup World Poll drove the findings, with adults in more than 140 countries providing a representative sample of 95 percent of the world’s population. The sample included more than 150,000 adults.

Eighty-nine percent of individuals worldwide expect the next five years to be as good or better than their current life, and 95 percent of individuals expected their life in five years to be as good or better than their life was five years ago.

“These results provide compelling evidence that optimism is a universal phenomenon,” said Matthew Gallagher, a psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas and lead researcher of the study.

At the country level, optimism is highest in Ireland, Brazil, Denmark, and New Zealand and lowest in Zimbabwe, Egypt, Haiti and Bulgaria. The United States ranks number 10 on the list of optimistic countries.

Demographic factors (age and household income) appear to have only modest effects on individual levels of optimism.

Now, has anyone actually conducted a scientific poll of science fiction writers to see how they stack up by comparison?

(Image: Democritus by Agostino Carracci, from Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]public opinion, polling, optimism, dystopia, pessimism,psychology[/tags]


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