12/30/10

Review of 'Forecast' by Shya Scanlon

Shya Scanlon’s first novel, Forecast, is a fabulist dystopian work about Citizen Surveillant Maxwell Point’s report to the United States Energy Commission regarding the disappearance of Helen Allen-Karuth (formerly known, in her youth, as Zara). Set in the year 2212, the title offers up the novel as a view into our own future through close examination of our own present time.

Part Kurt Vonnegut, part Philip K. Dick, Forecast incorporates various sci-fi elements (the characters in the novel power their houses and appliances with ETMs [Emotional Transfer Machines], wear Anti-Surveillance masks, etc.) to mirror our own society’s flaws, corruptions and obsessions.

As is tradition in most science fiction, Forecast critiques the political and economic landscapes which inhabit our own current culture, its ideological apparatuses (including repressive militarism) as well as rampant consumerism (many terms in the novel are either registered [Pansomatic®] or unregistered [WeatherLESS Reports™] trademarks, hinting at the overabundance of false dichotomies in our culture).

Helen, known in her youth as Zara (serving as her own dichotomy, and echoing perhaps Nietzsche’s Zarathustra who spoke of the √úbermensch [Overman] who must cross from primitive savage into civilized man), is more rebellious than Helen, until Helen decides to leave her adulterous husband Jack and embark on a quest (with her neighbor’s talking dog, Rocket) to find Asseem, Zara’s ex-boyfriend.

Told primarily in two alternating time frames (Helen’s adult life and Zara’s youth), the novel also deals with the struggle between past and present identities—who we are relative to who we were, who we’ve been, ultimately forecasting who we will become. This identity changes (as all identities do) according to emotional responses to the circumstances Zara/Helen finds herself in. (Ironically, the rebellious Zara is incapable of transferring enough emotional energy to make the machine work.)

Point’s narrative—his story—is Helen’s story, as he is reporting Helen's disappearance to the Energy Commission, though his motives become increasingly suspect. His overall role in the novel calls into question authorial intent and the limits of the omniscient narrator (while no doubt playing on the conventions of the unreliable narrator) who literally watches and knows everything about his subject (our protagonist), and for this reason the boundaries between objective witness and emotionally attached voyeur are blurred when Point intervenes in Helen’s life.

In his report to the Energy Commission, Point provides key excerpts from the Citizen Surveillance Handbook written by his mentor, Dr. Kadik:
[T]he ability to feel … becomes something of an addiction. But it is not, as it may first appear, the narcissistic brand of self-interest, of vanity, that might otherwise be thought a first order threat to true connection. Because this is not a retreat into the self so much as an escape from the self. An emotion’s internal bloom does not reflect one’s own face, but distracts exactly from it. It is a nameless, universal equivocation of the self. These experiences transcend the finite, fleshy vehicle and open one up to some cast encounter with the anonymous nature of life. It is a release. A passage. A leap of faith. And it should not be undertaken lightly.
The purpose of surveillance in the novel is “to fill in whatever pieces are missing to recreate motivation, emotional response, and of course to predict behavior.” This behavior model is used as both a marketing and a military strategy to track and control citizens. This prediction of behavior also reflects the idea of weather—something which, in the novel, in 2212, can no longer be predicted.

Citizen involvement in society is also called into question:
I watched [Helen’s pursuit of anonymity] unfold with some astonishment, the way you watch an overseas war on TV: little spotty images filled with loads of conjecture, a touch of scandal, and then you wait for the real story to emerge so they can make a movie.
This not-so-veiled reference to current events reflects how seemingly incapable we are of affecting the world around us (or how apathetic we are based on our feelings of help/hopelessness), and that we can only utilize our barren, worthless mortality for entertainment purposes. This is where the genius of Scanlon’s Emotional Transfer Technology calls attention to the energy we waste on negative thoughts and actions (rather than redirecting them toward more positive ends)—reminding us that we literally have the power to affect/effect the world around us.

Forecast is now available from Flatmancrooked. Shya Scanlon is also the author of In This Alone Impulse (Neomi Press, 2010). Here is Shya Scanlon's website.

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