Everyone in Silico by Jim Munroe
Review and interview with the author
By Ivan Lerner
If the blurring of the lines between social, corporate and government structures disturbs you, then you must pick up Jim Munroe’s recently published Everyone in Silico ($13.95; 241 pages; Four Walls Eight Windows, www.4w8w.com). Fast, sharp, and almost too smart for its own good, Everyone in Silico (EiS) is the best new science fiction novel I’ve read all year.
Munroe’s dystopia is a world where advertising and consumerism are ubiquitous and total: godlike, a bright and shiny future that would give Marshall McLuhan a psychotic episode. As a warning of things that may come, the book respects its genre, and unlike so many other “modern,” “hip” or “contemporary” authors, Munroe doesn’t play fast and loose. He invents some rules and sticks to them, giving us a well-constructed plot with no bolt-ons or Deux ex machina.
Above all else, this dense and detailed book is fun to read. Taking place in the year 2036, the novel is mainly set in Vancouver and “Frisco.” Frisco is not San Francisco (that was demolished in the big quake), but a cyberspace megalopolis owned and operated by the Self Corporation. For a fee, Self will download your “software” (your memories, your thought patterns) into Frisco, where you never have to sleep, where you can reinvent your image, where everything is perfect. It seems like everyone on the West Coast is signing up to go to Frisco, and whole neighborhoods have become deserted as folks sign up to make the virtual reality exodus.
But in Frisco, unless you’re a “platinum,” you will never be able to completely turn off the bombardment of advertising assaulting you 24/7. Things are pretty much the same in the “real” world, too. Not only is reality overwhelmed by billboards and holograms, but random people on the street now earn money being pitchmen: If someone manages to speak a commercial jingle to you, they get credits. If you cut them off, they get nothing.
Thankfully there are people who want nothing to do with either dreadful place. There’s the enigmatic and wistful media jammer Paul, who’s got plenty up his holographic sleeve; and harried salaryman and “coolhunter” (trend spotter) Doug who, if he didn’t at least have a decent sex life, could be right out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Our ostensible heroine is Nicky, a renegade biologist (with everyone going “in silico,” no one wants to study living things anymore) who can grow mutant animals in her “EasyBake.”
Then there’s Eileen, the worried grandma with an army-issued bionic combat suit. A killer ninja super-soldier, Eileen is a wonderful character and a perfect example of how Munroe subverts and plays with the genre. Usually, the owner of a souped-up cybersuit is some hot babe or Schwarzenegger type. Here she’s a frumpy old lady who likes to bake cookies.
Reinforcing the potential reality of this world, Munroe uses real slogans and trademarks, like Mickey Mouse and McDonald’s (where customers are warned the food may contain “peanuts and human DNA”), and reinterprets familiar ones, coming up with new products like Reese’s Oreos. Ever the prankster, Munroe sent an invoice for $10 to Hershey’s (along with other manufacturers mentioned in EiS) for fees regarding “product placement.” Hershey’s didn’t pay.
But optimism seems to be a unifying theme among the characters. Not Pollyanna-like denial, but the faith in themselves not to give up. Monroe assures us that not everybody wants to be a consumer, and that there will always be people struggling to free themselves from narcotizing corporate entertainment. When she’s feeling down because she’s a “useless” biologist, another character tells Nicky, “Learning’s never a waste of time, even in a science most consider archaic.”
With a devil-may-care style reminiscent of pulp novels, Munroe agilely combines humor, smart SF, and political commentary. In a scene in which Nicky is visiting her mother in Frisco, Nicky has found out that her uncle was much more than just the family “kook.” He had been the last of the insurgents against the proliferation of advertising, like a futuristic member of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, and we get a glimpse of Nicky’s increasing political consciousness.
“Do you really think,” her mother said, poking at her, “that a relative of your father would be part of a terrorist group who destroyed millions of dollars worth of equipment and endangered hundreds of lives? Just to stop a billboard going up?”
Nicky arched an eyebrow and shrugged. “Well, it wasn’t just another billboard. It was the moon.”
My only complaint: EiS ends somewhat abruptly for my
tastes. I wish that it had lasted for at least 100 more pages, but I suppose
it’s better to leave the audience wanting more. After all, isn’t
that what marketing’s all about?
Jim Munroe, 30, is also the author of the well-received Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gas Mask (Avon, 1999) and Angry Young Spaceman (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2001), as well as the former managing editor of Adbusters magazine www.adbusters.com. Currently he runs the nomediakings.org website. Based in Toronto, he “almost always a tub of kimchi and a carton of soymilk” in his refrigerator. “I can get by on what the books bring in, believe it or not,” he says, adding, “barely, and only because I'm frugal with no dependents, but self-sufficient….”
Describe the evolution of the novel. How is it a natural extension of Adbusters? How would you describe Adbusters?
JM: Well, in a direct way, I started writing short SF stories with similar tone when I was working there to be published in the magazine. In an indirect way, it was what I learned there—not just about corporate culture, but about how different strains of activism functioned—that provided a lot of the themes in the book. Not to overstate the influence, because I was already thinking about these issues before I ever worked there. As far as how it evolved... well, it originally started out as an idea for an adventure video game that quickly outgrew my ability to realize it in that medium. So it became a book.
So what's wrong with advertising? Why are some people so dead set against somebody trying to make an honest buck? And how do you deal with people who say stuff like that?
JM: Advertising's not inherently evil, it grows out of a human need to tell lots of people about something. Sickening as it is, manipulative advertising isn't evil, either, any more than a story that pulls at your heartstrings. It's just that the motivations behind these marketing messages are all the same—BUY OUR STUFF. It means that a considerable amount of our society's energy and focus revolves around this one thing, this thing that most average people agree is not the most important thing to be focused on. Not only does that make for a discrepancy between our actions and our values, but it also makes for a more homogenous culture.
I've hated excessive advertising since I was a kid and cartoon shows were shortened to show more commercials. What was your turning experience?
JM: I was inspired by the anti-consumerism in punk rock, certainly, probably when I was 14 or so.
Who were you listening to when you were 14? Who are you listening to now? Who really rocked your world?
JM: Dead Kennedys, definitely, but also Crimpshrine and a lot of the proto-pop punk. Don't listen to straight-ahead punk rock much now. I've always been more excited by the politics and the culture than the music. The Weakerthans, New Pornographers, Jets to Brazil, Peaches are all fantastic.
Everyone in Silico satirically exaggerates and amplifies the impact of advertising. What are some of the trends that you currently see as being a threat to an anti-consumerist life?
JM: To my mind, the most dangerous thing is forgetting that there are other ways to live. The fact that I can take other people's garbage and use it as furniture—and that it be considered “dumpster diving” rather than “garbage picking”—is thanks to a cultural idea propagated by punk rock. Even when there is a political rationale for doing something subversive, it needs a cultural context to be considered cool. When our subcultures become more like the mainstream, they lose their distinctness and an alternative way of living is lost.
Why satire? Could this book have been possible as “straight” SF?
JM: I don't really consider Everyone in Silico satirical, in that I didn't extrapolate anything that I didn't think was likely to happen just for laughs. I think there are laughs to be had, but it's more in how the reader finds out and how the characters react than the outlandishness of the advertising campaign or whatever I'm describing.
Why did you choose the science fiction genre?
JM: I have written outside the genre, and have no doubt that I would be taken more seriously by certain camps if I did. But the truth is that I love writing in a gutter genre, a genre that most people consider juvenile or dismissible. It gives me a feeling of freedom, of not having to live up to standards of literature even if I end up doing so, and when people say, “I like your books even though I don't like science fiction,” I am delighted that I've been able to break down their bias.
Are you a fan of SF? Did you read it growing up? Who did you like then? Who do you like now?
JM: I read it constantly as a child and early teenager. In grade 10, I was reading Heinlein’s Friday before geography class, and another kid turned to me and said, “Why are you reading when you could be talking to us?” I didn't have a good answer and I've been talking ever since.
Nowadays I don't read much SF, although my wife found a cache of Philip K. Dick books of her brother’s and I've been enjoying those. As much for the covers and the amazing obviousness that Dick worked in LSD into every book: LSD darts, LSD gas…. I also hugely enjoyed Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.
Who would you say has been influential on your work, especially this novel?
JM: As mentioned before, my time at Adbusters. A lot of people cite Dick as an influence, which he probably was; I was playing a lot of the video game Half-Life; that's all I can think of.
What are your work habits? How do you construct your plots?
JM: I schedule four four-hour writing sessions a week, writing 1,250 words a session: a chapter a week, six months for a book. A few chapters in, I start to sketch skeletal plot stuff, to get the pacing right, and then I fill in the details as I get closer.
I don't think enough SF writers attempt to deal with genuine life experiences or social issues, sticking to the gnomes and space navies. Why is this? What do you think could be done to change this?
JM: There's a lot of fairly limited SF out there, but there's also a lot of crap that's labeled literature. A lot of people will always stick to the conventions of their genre very closely, and there will be an audience for it that craves the familiarity. It'll always be the more consistent audience, the bigger audience. I write for people like myself, who want to be entertained and transported and stimulated, but are easily distracted by cliché and formulas. Writing in SF suits me, and I think as more people see that writing in a genre is only as limiting as they let it be, then more people will be doing it.
IVAN LERNER™ tries not to get bought and sold too often.
© 2003 Little Commie LLC About Email Message Board