Sunday, March 6, 2011

Super Sad True Love Story and Science Fiction Nightmares

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart is written in the near-ish future--it has a bit of a 1984 feel, in that while reading, it is easy to become convinced that this could very well be the future.  Set in a New York City on the verge of political and military chaos, the smart phone has been replaced with an apparat--a device that people wear and use to scan one another and instantly not only receive data about each other, but to be ranked among whoever they are surrounded by.  The society is so driven by this technology that people no longer read, they scan.  Books are completely obsolete.  Some of the setting details are overly satiric, like the fact that people and children love porn stars instead of movie stars and that "onion skin" (or see through) jeans are the pants of choice; but other aspects completely jolted me as they seemed a bit too real.

Within the book there is a love story between two people who are able to look past the unlikelihood of their pairing, for a little while, anyway. But to me it is a love story about about a city and a lost time--which was interesting because there are so many things going wrong with our current society, but reading about this future one made me nostalgic for what is outside my window.  A completely data driven society is one of the most frightening things that an author can conjure up, and yet it's not that far from social networking sites that occupy us today (or, for you educators out there, the constant drive for children to be represented by numbers) or our ability to constantly be connected to the world via the phone we carry in our pockets. Here is an excerpt from one of the main characters, Lenny, who is a bit of an old soul in the age of technology:

"Also, I've spent an entire week without reading any books or talking about them too loudly.  I'm learning to worship my new apparat's screen, the colorful pulsating mosaic of it, the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors."

Reading futuristic science fiction scares me: the kind where people have lost their sense of what it means to be human and where the ethical and moral issues are lost in the flurry of moving ahead.  It makes me think about what actually constitutes a good life, though that adjective is the most vague of them all, and would be defined differently by almost everyone.

Lenny works for a man named Joshie at the Post-Human Services office in a large corporation, whose job is to locate HNWI (high net worth individuals) who are interested in living forever and undergoing treatments to ensure that it happens.  While their work seems absurd, it seems like a logical progression for the capitalist's reaction to our culture's fear of aging.  Of course in the book, it also feels adolescent in the sense that people aren't considering the consequences of such steps in anti-aging.

"Joshie had always told Post-Human Services staff to keep a diary, to remember who we were, because every moment our brains and synapses are being rebuilt and rewired with maddening disregard for our personalities, so that each year, each month, each day we transform into a different person, an utterly unfaithful iteration of our original selves."

This is the part that gives me nightmares--longer life without a sense of self.  It is already hard for me to remember what life was like before cell phones and the internet--and there are days that I want to separate myself from them. But then I have to honestly admit that I'm not sure I know how to.

I feel like I've come to learn that life is knowing and understanding the human story.  Last night I was talking with friends and one of them said that our technological growth is exponential.  It makes me fear just how unhuman are we making ourselves? And if that growth is regulated, that is an even scarier political thriller of an existence.  See how I've gone and gotten all paranoid on you?

(I also blame watching the movie version of this book on Friday for this current state of mind.)

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