Tuesday, April 15, 2014

New Dystopias: A look at Bald New World(s), Orphans, and the complete and total Annihilation of Identity

I've always enjoyed reading about damaged worlds. I feel a thrill in weaving through Dystopic Literature, not just to see what writers do with their futuristic worlds, but to figure out what these worlds are saying about us right now

Peter Tieryas Liu's Bald New World, Ben Tanzer's Orphans, and Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation are dystopic books released within the past year that bring us into three very different futures. But they carry similar themes, a synchronicity that can't be ignored. 

I've written about Peter Tieryas Liu's work extensively because I feel like he's pushing Asian American writing into new avenues. With Bald New World, Peter writes his most personal story yet but brings us into a setting that may just be his most bizarre. In a future where everyone on Earth has gone bald, wigs are the largest commodity. Peter's book follows aimless but good-natured Nick Guan, a war-veteran and photographer, and his friendship with eccentric billionaire filmmaker Larry Chao, who owns, through inheritance, the most powerful wig company in the world.

The story is about image, yes, and about human greed, but at its core it's a story about belonging, and friendship, and what that makes you as a human being.

Who are you, really?

Peter uses the dystopic landscape of a world teetering on the edge to test the limits of human identity. This is a story about image but not just what you see in a mirror: It's about how you perceive yourself.

One of the most telling moments is when Nick finds himself embodying the body of a cricket, as part of a neural sport dangerously played in the future. It's so dangerous that Nick almost forgets that he is, in fact, a human, and the hormonal instincts of the cricket nearly take full control. But if his mind still believed he was a cricket would he still be Nick? With plastic surgery so precise in this future that you can look like literally anyone, who are you really? And does it even matter?

At its heart, Bald New World is a confrontation with identity in a world where so much of that can be bought.

With Orphans, Ben Tanzer brings us a dystopia that pushes inequality to the limit. In this future, jobs are the commodity. And with jobs being so scarce, keeping one, at all costs, is the only thing that matters. Even above holding your own individuality.

There are many issues at play here that break down the identity of the protagonist, Norrin Radd. Norrin has to sell real estate on Mars to the richest people on Earth, who are looking to start a new, better world. He's good at his job, a job that he hates, so what does that make him? No one cares.

What's most interesting about Ben's book is how the Corporation (capital "C") of this novel don't stop at minimizing people at work, using them as cogs, the Corporation's reach touches the home - where they supplant their employees, some gone for months at a time, like Norrin, with idealized clones. These Terrax inherit the memories and much of the personality of the employee, without their glaring, and very human, flaws.

Using Terraxes to take the place of the employee at home is used to avoid heartbreak over these long separations, to keep up productivity. But what the Corporation in this story is really saying is chilling:

In every single way, you can be replaced.

With Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer's first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy, we get a dystopia that continues the question of identity. But it doesn't just say, You can be replaced. A big part of the story leaves you wondering if that would be such a terrible thing.

The enemy here isn't a monolithic corporation, the enemy is science itself (or maybe that's not the right word to use here, maybe there is no enemy). There are strange things happening at Area X, a place cut off from the rest of the world. Annihilation follows an expedition (the twelfth to reach the site) of four nameless woman; our protagonist is the biologist, but there is an anthropologist, a surveyor, and the leader, known only as the psychologist. Names are not important here, in this case, they are forbidden. You are your skill. The personal is to be kept at a minimum for the security of the mission.

But that doesn't stop the mission from falling apart.

As we learn more about the biologist, we find that her participation in this mission is not simply for science. Her husband traveled through the strange, ever changing terrain of Area X on his own mission, and when he returned, he was changed. Himself, but not. Hollow. And then he died. The biologist is in Area X to find out what happened to him. As she progresses, she must also figure out what is happening to her.

Through her interactions with the breathing landscape, her own biology begins to change. There is no doubt: Area X is changing her from within. But if her cells change, her own biological makeup, is she still herself? Can you become an entirely different being and not even realize it?

When it comes down to it, all three books are very different and ask different questions about identity. All are worth reading and analyzing and questioning.

For myself, I'll never stop questioning.

I believe that we are more than our jobs. We are more than what we like on Facebook, what we read, what food we eat. We are more than our skin. Our race. Our personality. Who we love. Even our biology.

But I can't stop wondering. How much more?

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