A friend reminded me recently of the theory that science fiction sales are supposed to skyrocket during times of political malaise or frustration. While this may be the stuff of legend (if the last decade is any indicator, fantasy sales have actually outpaced science fiction), I chose to celebrate election month by asking the staff at Borderlands, a genre fiction bookstore in the Mission district, to fill me in on the most popular sci-fi novels and trends of the last year in the Bay Area. I figured that regardless of the election results, some KQED readers would be as curious as I have been about what types of alternate realities Bay Area residents are interested in. So here it is, short and sweet, a brief synopsis of three of the bigger sellers in the Bay Area over the last year, including World War Z, by Max Brooks, Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, and a re-issue of Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan, with illustrations by Vincent Chong.
It's easy to read our fascination with zombies as a sublimated fear of assimilation and conformity, and Max Brooks's World War Z (2006) doesn't cover any new ground on this front, but what it does offer is a unique post-World is Flat take on the genre. World War Z is an oral-history, a sort of a subjective 9/11 report that tells the story of a global zombie war from the moment of its denouement, instead of in the midst of the action. In some ways, it's a post-apocalyptic novel, except that instead of collapsing into a world of Thunderdome-style, warring groups, political boundaries stay largely intact and big government triumphs.
The plot is communicated through interviews with characters all over the globe. We learn that there are strict rules and patterns to zombie behavior and destruction. What Brooks does best is describe the variety of individual and governmental responses to these behaviors and patterns, all based on psychology and political history. It's this type of detail that makes the novel stand out: in many ways, I'm counting World War Z as my first truly globalized science-fiction experience. My guess, however, is that the general popularity of World War Z has more to do with the satisfaction of watching the world triumph over a mindless, fearless enemy, in combination with a nostalgic craving for an obvious Bad Guy. And there is clearly a Bad Guy in World War Z, even if the morals of some of the supposed good guys are more ambiguous.
Cory Doctorow's novel Little Brother (2008) has a definite Bad Guy too, although in this case it is the United States Department of Homeland Security. This is a book about teenage systems nerds (hackers) who fall under the suspicion of the DHS after a terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge. Little Brother attempts to turn the tables on its readers and to force us to see from the perspective of a private citizen attacked by his own government, while at the same time making a case for the danger inherent in giving up our privacy (both online and off). Of the three books that I read for this posting, it's the most blatant: most blatantly influenced by the political events of the last decade, most blatant in its opinion about the use of technology in relation to these events, and most blatant in its handling of characters as vehicles to deliver a limited variety of opinions on the above.
The book is teen fiction, and unfortunately the dialogue and lack of complexity in the characters do the genre wrong. Doctorow, however, who writes about technology for both Wired and Boing Boing, excels in his synopses of everything from computer networking and security to the type of twisted legalese that has allowed America to maintain prisoners at places like Guantanamo. Put another way, the information and research that Little Brother contains kept me reading, even when the lack of any nuance in the plot or characters had me frustrated.
Nuance, however, is where Richard Morgan excels, and this is at least part of the reason that Altered Carbon (2002), a Takeshi Kovacs novel, continues not just to endure, but to get better with age. I read the book for the first time just after it came out, and its concerns have weathered well: issues of embodiment and the location of intelligence, as well as of class, morality and the right to live or die. These are the peripheral conditions in Kovac's world, where your intelligence is stored on a chip in your cortex and your consciousness can be re-sleeved -- placed in a new body -- after the first one has worn out. Because of this, death is an impermanent state, depending on whether or not your relatives want to access you (or can afford to).
Takeshi Kovacs is a detective for hire, a former member of the elite UN Protectorate's Envoy Corps. At the beginning of the novel he is graphically gunned down with his girlfriend, only to be re-sleeved by a Meth, Altered Carbon's version of aristocracy. Meths are both socially and psychologically untouchable due to their wealth and the fact that they have lived as the same intelligence for centuries. This particular Meth, Laurens Bancroft, was also recently murdered, and he wants Kovacs to prove it (the police have written it off as suicide). In keeping with much of adult noir-oriented science fiction, the heroes are ethically ambiguous and full of flaws similar to those they are pitted against. There are still Bad Guys in Altered Carbon, but it might be more apt to just call them "worse," as the majority of characters in the novel exist in a grey zone.
Two of the three books that the Borderlands staff recommended take place in an alternate version of the Bay Area (Little Brother and Altered Carbon), which I'm sure accounts for some of their popularity, but on the whole it looks like San Franciscans (or those who buy their science fiction at Borderlands, in any case), are less interested in escape and new domains as they are in reworkings of current political situations, especially in the case of Little Brother and World War Z. I only wish I could have read more of the recommended titles (particularly Use of Weapons, by Ian Banks), but if you're interested in catching up on the state of the genre, any one of these titles will do.