Review Round-up: The Revisionists and The Fourth Wall
Friday, February 17, 2012
Two more books about conspiracies, paranoia and sinister organisations that go bump in the night.
Thomas Mullen's The Revisionists (2011) is a time-travel novel with a twist. Zed, the primary protagonist, is an agent from the future - back in our present to defend his timeline's status quo. Indoctrinated with horror stories of "The Great Conflagration", Zed and other agents are ever mindful of the stakes of their missions. They might do distasteful things (murder, a bit more murder, some more murder), but they do so in the name of species survival. Unless history plays out in a certain way, their future will never come to pass.
Zed - neurotic, pressured, exhausted Zed - is only one of the book's viewpoint characters. The others vary from a second-tier spy to a corporate lawyer facing a crisis of conscience. Initially, their paths seem utterly irrelevant to the greater course of the book, but Mr. Mullen cunningly weaves everything together by the end.
If anything, the book sets out to disprove the "Great Man" theory in favor of the Butterfly Effect. The future isn't forged by titanic figures, it is scrawled haphazardly by a series of tiny incidents. Zed is aware of this (hell, he's trained in it), but the real thrust of The Revisionists occurs when he starts skiing off-piste. Zed is supposed to go back "home" after every mission, but a fluke change of heart has him stalking around Washington DC for far longer than he should. Although he attempts to stay aloof, he's naturally empathetic. Despite his best attempts, he winds up making connections and, therefore, making an impact.
Of course nothing is as it seems, and just as The Revisionists brings its narrators together towards some sort of visibly cohesive end, it turns everything on its head. There's a weird bit of heavy-handedness about both modern and future politics, but if the book errs more towards "Equilibrium" than 1984, it still keeps the reader engrossed. Mr. Mullen infuses his book with an steadily-increasing sense of tension that builds to a (pardon the cliche) thrilling climax.
Walter Jon Williams' The Fourth Wall (2012) is a near-future murder mystery featuring one of my favorite neo-noir tropes: the aging child star. As a kid, Sean was a precocious cherub on a beloved television show. As an adult, he's a sorry has-been, clinging to an acting career by his fingernails. His agent (the bottom of the barrel) has him signed on to Celebrity Kickboxer and the reader is first introduced to Sean while he's getting pummelled in an arena filled with cottage cheese.
It isn't like Sean doesn't deserve it. His primary redeeming quality is that he knows exactly how shameless and desperate he is - willing to do anything rather than leave Hollywood and admit the dream is over. He's sold out his rivals, faked publicity stunts and betrayed his friends. Still, even if he is ashamed of himself, he's not slowing down.
Sean's big chance (or second big chance) comes from Dagmar Shaw, a controversial video game producer that's making the leap into film. Initially, Sean sees her as a joke (if a lucrative one). Her screen tests are offbeat, her demand for on-set psychologists is bizarre and her pockets seem infinitely deep. Whether or not this thing gets made, Sean's determined to milk it for all he can.
But as the project continues, he realises there's something more going on. Shaw has a lot of money and, beyond that, a lot of vision. The film itself is something nifty - an interactive, episodic experience that involves Sean travelling (virtually) all over the world and saving various market-tested children from evil invaders. Shaw shoots loads of extra content, so viewers essentially get their own bespoke version of each story, depending on the choices they make for his character. But as awesome (and potentially successful) as this is, Sean thinks there's something else going on. And once people start getting murdered, he knows it.
Ironically, as work of near-future SF, The Fourth Wall has already gone from prophetic to out of date: examples of these sorts of global, interactive cinematic shenanigans are already underway. But the technological shtick is beside the point and, to some degree, so is the murder mystery (which is all rather neatly wrapped up at the end). The book lives and dies with Sean - an all too flawed and all too human petty player that's somehow walked on to the biggest stage of his life. Around him, Very Important Things are happening - with technology, with politics, with the lives of his friends - but his major concern is, well, himself.
It is worth mentioning that he's not a bad guy - he's charitable to others, surprisingly supportive and does his best to promote the talent that he sees around him. It isn't hard to follow Sean through the book because he's not actively evil - he's just disinterested. Unless something affects him, he doesn't really care. This worldview, he notes, permeates the entirety of the film industry and, as far as the text is concerned, serves to enable Dagmar Shaw's success in implementing a fairly transparent scheme. Sean is the hero of his own story and that which doesn't relate to him simply doesn't feature.
The result is a surprisingly funny read. Sean's antics are sarcastic brilliance and Mr. William's book carefully walks the line between sympathy and contempt. More than that, and to the theme of conspiracy theories, it presents another way of handling the omnipresent shadowy threat: you ignore it. Even when his life is directly endangered and he knows that there's a "Big Bad" out there watching him, Sean plows on. He's got his priorities sorted, and no shadowy techno-industrial syndicate will stop him from being famous again.