Saturday, July 17, 2010

In the year 2071

In the year 2071, the library has a different feel from the library of today. Apart from a lively, and book-filled, children's section:

...the rest of the main floor was given to rows and rows of partitioned carrels, each with its own computer and headphones.

"We went to the information desk," Anna said. "I asked the librarian where the books were. 'Is there a particular book you want to see?' he said. I said, 'No. We just want to browse.' He said, 'I'm sorry, but the stacks are not open to the public. The catalog is on-line. If there's a book you want, just click on it, and a staff person will bring it to your carrel. It doesn't take long.' 'Is there no way to see the books?' I asked him. 'I'm here with my son. I want him to see what a library is like.' The old man smiled at us. 'This is a library,' he said. 'I mean a library with books,' I said.

That is, this is how the library of 2071 is imagined by Steven Polansky in The Bradbury Report.

The premise: United States, 2071. The government has had a wide-scale cloning program in effect for some 20-odd years, so that clones can supply organ material to originals. (The rest of the world does not condone these practices, but this is not explored beyond Canada eventually being a kind of safeplace with respect to our main characters.) One clone has escaped form the Clearances and a series of circumstances brings him face to face with his original. Together with Anna, an activist, an old friend of the original's, they spend a year on the run from their government.

And it's all a bit complicated by the fact that the original is not in the best of health.

So there are some pretty interesting moral, philosophical concepts flowing through this novel. I see it as a kind of flipside to what I imagine Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is like (I haven't read it).

[A lesson in spoilers wrt employer relations: A year or two back, my then boss, knowing how bookish I was, was excited to share the fact that she was getting into reading. Boss: I just started Never Let Me Go; do you know it? Me: I haven't read it, but I've heard a lot about it. That's the one about clones, right? Boss: Oh.]

One complaint I have against this book is that it simply didn't feel future-y enough. Of course, you don't want the details of the setting in time to overshadow the point of the story. But this goes too far the other way. The only point of being set in the future is to allow for the plausibility of cloning. Everything else about this novel feels like an old man writing about and bemoaning 2010.

I had trouble buying into a number of innocuous details: In the year 2071, will anyone casually and inconspicuously wear a Montreal Expos cap? The narrator of the report was born the year the team moved. In the year 2071, hotel-room bedding is drenched in cigarette-smoke. In the year 2071, a high school math teacher rarely uses a computer. In the year 2071, street maps are common and inconspicuous. In the year 2071, TVs are commonly set on low tables. In the year 2071, another teacher has trouble coming to terms with a library, as described above, as if she hasn't been in one for 60 years. I can imagine good possible reasons for all these things, but they don't feel natural.

On the other hand, I quite like the depiction of the weekend Ray and Anna spend in Montreal. It read like a love letter to the city I call home.

On several occasions, the characters describe the clone as being like a child, only he's not a child. In fact, I smiled in recognition more than once at situations I've encountered as a parent, in particular the problem of expressing oneself clearly and with finality but without condescension. No one hates being condescended to more than children do, but adults tend to allow it in their case. The clone, oddly enough, wasn't, I believe, sufficiently socialized to recognize the tone. In that it's a book about what it means to be human, in some ways, I think, it would've served this purpose just as well to feature a child rather than a clone.

What it means to be human? It goes beyond science, of course. Ritual, manners, identity, ownership. A kind of meta-ness. Some cultural memory, cultural consciousness.

Not quite science-y enough to be science fiction, the pacing's off for it to be a thriller (though some other plot elements of the genre are present), and not quite satisfying enough (clever enough? passionate enough? pretty enough in its individual sentences?) for me to consider it "literary fiction." But interesting enough to those who like dystopic fiction and appreciate considering the moral quandaries that science — that progress — poses.
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