Tandem Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1 877178 34 9
If “What if … ?” can be regarded as the foundation question of all fiction, then for Science Fiction it should be accompanied with two question marks; for of all literary genres, SF pushes the boundary of credibility the hardest. At its most extreme, SF crosses that boundary and blurs into Fantasy where anything goes at the swish of a broomstick: but at the other extreme, SF can create dramas as real seeming as tomorrow’s news, but heightened to reveal the perils and threats. Utopias, be it noted, are rare in modern fiction, and the days are long passed when we believed that science would alleviate human misery.
Novels that sound a tocsin regarding our future may be political, such as Orwell’s 1984 or sociological such as Harry Harrison’s impassioned Make room! Make room!. In Brainjoy, Chris Else offers us a vision of life as it might become if market forces are left to shape our lives without let or hindrance. Brainjoy is set in a world of glitz, spin, hype and thrust; a world where media manipulation is the norm and where rules, crueller than those you would find in the jungle, regulate human affairs. Needless to say, the divisions between the rich and the poor are entrenched.
We are in New Zealand – but only just, and there is scant evidence of much that we would recognise as Kiwi. Tall glass towers have sprung up along the Petone foreshore. Roads run in tubes beneath high-rise apartments and megalithic office blocks. Literary education is reduced to tomes such as One Thousand Great Lines of Verse. It is a world of offices, lift shafts and bars, ruled by “clink”, which in this novel is slang for money not prison, though the difference is not as great as one might think. The natural world is kept at a distance with video screens serving as windows so you can have whatever view you wish – at the flick of a switch. There you have it: everything comes at the flick of a switch.
Several characters drive the novel along. The first we meet is “Spit” Wilson, a street-smart slang-lipped kid who knows that to make it in this world you have to be quick and cool and moving. He becomes the messenger/delivery-boy for a threatening, powerful “dud” called Blyss who is an information marketeer and a partner with the androgynous David Livid.
In keeping with the theme of mutability, we next encounter Lavendar Tempest, a woman who changes her fashion by the day and who is head of Isis, a firm that specialises in massaging images and who will (if the client so requires) tamper with documentary footage to make it less incriminating.
In the world of this novel everything is malleable. One man’s reality is another’s convenient fiction: and so begins a journey that takes us through the glitter to the nightmare that must, I suspect, be the underpinning reality of any world that is purely materialistic. But this is a world in deep crisis. The electronic revolution that has permeated all aspects of human intercourse has become unstable. Freak accidents, characterised by a grotesque childish humour, are occurring more and more frequently, and are causing chaos in the marketplace and death in the clinics.
Enter Ratman – the hamburger-munching, coke-swilling, obese and naked quintessential computer nerd. This dank, pale, stuttering gee-nee-us is afraid when it comes to going out in the real world, but sits alone in the glow of his screen, downloading the data problems to which he is addicted. Ratman is commissioned to find out what is going wrong with all the city’s integrated circuits.
In what is one of the most interesting threads in the book, Ratman discovers and then engages in personal battle with a “roller” – a vast computer virus which seems to be the brainchild of that same David Livid, though it may actually be the mind of the man himself. Ratman wins; and though his body dies in the flesh, something of his mind remains in the network, and we are left with the tantalising thought that perhaps he will replace the White Rabbit (the code name for Livid), and a new and more awesome virus will soon make its presence felt.
The world realised in Brainjoy is closer to us than we might think. We have all seen the streets of our cities torn up for the implantation of fibre optic cables. We all use computers. The Internet is as close as a telephone call away. We are awash with Information – though its big sister Wisdom seems curiously absent – and we know that anything that can be digitalised can be manipulated. Given all this, one of the pleasures of Brainjoy is in following the author’s satire. Not only has he invented a new slang, which by the book’s end has come to seem quite natural, but he prefaces each chapter with a quotation from some aspect of this brave new world’s ephemera. There is the touchy-feely soft-porn society news of Pump Trend, the manifesto of the ZIG (Zero Intervention Government) Party, a chillingly plausible Council deficit report filled with New Right bias, and the profit returns of the Port Nicholson Police Company – to name but a few. When Chris Else lets this satirical side of his talent have its way, his writing achieves the clarity of an acid etching.
For all its imaginative strengths, some parts of Brainjoy left me hungry. The book stays pretty much within the soft-carpeted world of the wealthy or within the concrete environs of the parking buildings and dirty lift shafts through which Spit moves as he delivers his messages. We rarely see inside the houses of the poor or get to know that whole side of society which must be seething with its own tensions. Equally, I felt the pace of the narrative slowed down as we moved towards the climax, and this brought the characters under pressure. They began to perform more to the plot’s requirements than in accordance with their own revealed natures. Ms Lavendar suddenly achieves a compelling intuition which leads her to find Mr Blyss. Spit reveals a humanity hitherto well-hidden, and Blyss ends up giggling and giggling as though at some private existential joke. There is no single character we can follow.
The computer battle – human brain against virus – which I take to be the very heart of the climax, takes place in cyber-space, and this is essentially an abstract environment. David Livid is never quite a person but rather a falling together of images. Between these two, the logic of the story becomes a bit too fuzzy. Just at the moment when we want to relish every thump and twist of the battle, the novel moves into fractured cyber-speak – a linguistic style which elsewhere the author uses with great effect to evoke Ratman but which, while it may carry us into the man’s strange mind and has its own narcotic lilt, does not, and cannot give us an objective overview of what is happening:
I HAVE YOU STUPID! KILL! KILL! KILL!
And Ratman didn’t go for it this time. Ratman let it come on in. And gobble, gobble. Eat you Froggy. Ratman like a big, dark, hunger cave, the whole lot, every little, am your brain Froggy. Ratman am your evil brain.
– Hey Froggy me.
– I’M A SILLY ONE, A SILLY ONE, A SILLY ONE.
– We friends Froggy.
It is the linguistic technique that excludes us and thereby mutes our emotional reponse. And that is a shame because Ratman and The White Rabbit are worthy opponents. Thinking about this section and the problems it poses for a writer, I was reminded of M K Joseph’s The Hole in the Zero which explores chaos at the edge of the expanding universe, and wondered what alleys of the mind he would have led us through to reveal the contest.
However, these problems did not stop me turning the pages or diminish my pleasure in the sharp satire. Brainjoy is a thoughtful book: confident, well-written and challenging. It achieves what many Science Fiction novels only attempt: to make the issues and questions facing our own world clearer.
And what is “Brainjoy”? Well, it is a kind of drug that titillates your worst fantasies. Read it.
Phillip Mann has published nine SF novels.