Thursday, October 18, 2007

Literary Vacuum: Symbolic Anachronism

This article is part of an on-going series intended to clarify and expand upon elements of the dystopian novel The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism and its sequel Hemegohm’s Tendril.

Many of the characters in this novel are forced, out of necessity, to use a form of public communication terminal (e.g., a pay phone) to communicate, but the concept itself seems very anachronistic for the year 2167. Recently, I re-read Frederik Pohl's novel Gateway; he won some major awards for this one, and understandably so. The narrative is a juggernaut. The very premise itself is enough to push you to the next page (prospectors taking potentially one-way rides into deep space in misunderstood alien star-ships, with the promise of untold wealth should the ship manage to make it back to the Gateway artifact); but when you read this novel now, you find references to magnetic storage media; to cassette decks and "books on tape." While in 1976 this idea simply blended in, a modern reader finds it highly anachronistic. Here you have a story taking place far in Earth's future, yet you find references to decidedly "ancient" technology by 2007's standards.

The novel The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism is like a recursive parable. There are many symbols in play. When I first started writing, I found myself perpetually frustrated by prevailing science fiction concepts, foremost among them all, the idea of the "communicator" (think Star Trek). Back in 1989, pervasive cell phone usage was nonexistent. There wasn't even a market. Even so, in terms of constructing a story, the concept of instantaneous personal communication was having a limiting effect on dramatic tension. If the police, for instance, were merely a simple call way, the writerly hoops I was forced to jump through to create tension became unwieldy. To use an example from a different medium, I find myself cringing when a film's director is compelled to show me an extreme closeup of the protagonist's phone's "no bars" display.

So I took Simon Shadow's communicator away. I got rid of the communication satellites ringing this new planet. I put him in a wilderness, which was appropriate for the story itself. These characters, whether on the planet's surface or in orbiting battleships, are all living on a frontier. Furthermore, the planet they have left behind was one of such profound religious control (both of thought, action, and expression) that it seemed reasonable that there might also be a limiting of the individual's ability to communicate, even in a distant colony. On an overpopulated Earth, in the year 2167, life is controlled. On the periphery of human expansion, however, the symptoms of this control are still evident. People have moved beyond the solar system, but they are still citizens of Earth. They are living in a controlled variation of the society that they've left behind; such is the power of the World Order, the worldwide theocratic construct that has risen to dominate a besieged population. When Simon Shadow is taken to the desert to die at the hand's of his oppressors, he can't call for help. Public terminals used for communication litter the colony, but in the deep desert, he is alone, and the ability to communicate is out of reach. Even if he had a way to call for help, the colony police force is merely an extension of the World Order's will, intended solely to protect the business of religion.

The effect of this concept on the reader, however, is debatable. I am not sure if this hurts the narrative or improves it, or if it simply exists in a mutable, ever-changing "sphere of anachronism." The concept is powerful, however. Jumping back to films, recall the image of Mia Farrow hiding in a phone booth in Rosemary's Baby, paranoid, terrified, desperate to make contact with her doctor. The power of that scene is negated in modern society, where six-year-olds have calling plans. The onus is now on writers to craft equivalents of such tension. It is difficult, however, when the default is to show the closeup of "no bars." In The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism, an indirect form of tension is achieved by limiting the characters ability to communicate. The prevalence of public communication devices also suggests that the World Order may, in fact, be watching, even across the light years. Does it feel anachronistic? It does. But it is also symbolic, and within The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism, anachronism itself is a symbol. The suggestion is that religion, in all of its forms, when placed within the context of a modern society, is wholly anachronistic.

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