Barnes & Noble Review

Still Dreaming Dystopias

George Alec Effinger, A Thousand Deaths

It's a heartening fact about the human race that utopian fiction precedes dystopian fiction in the evolution of literature. If we assign the role of first recorded utopia to Plato's Republic (circa 350 B.C.), then the arrival of one of the earliest extant warning screeds about a hypothetical bad future doesn't occur till almost 2,000 years later, according to critic John Clute, who cites a British pamphlet from 1644 that limns the imagined horrors of the Restoration! Dreams of paradise arise from our edenic id, with visions of oppression and authoritarianism being later Cassandra-like impositions of the superego.

But as a legacy of the tumultuous and often disappointing and deadly 20th century, science fiction labors today under something of a dystopian pall. The crisis-heavy condition of contemporary life invites a pessimistic outlook: Envisioning what could go wrong is a lot easier — and often more dramatic — than imagining what could go right. Consequently, for every Rainbows End (2006) by Vernor Vinge, there are a dozen Forty Signs of Rain (2004) by Kim Stanley Robinson.

But a lot of this dark-and-dismal literary forecasting is often just atmospheric, setting up dictatorial straw men for the hero to rebel against. Every Luke Skywalker needs his Darth Vader. Only a minority of science fiction dystopias attempt to plumb the real existential roots of oppression, the flaws in humanity's nature that undermine our best attempts at organizing ourselves into social units.

. . . .

It could never be said that George Alec Effinger was entirely serious about anything. But at the roots of his often hilarious fiction was a deep understanding of human frailty and failure. Call his work, in the phrase of Brian Aldiss, a "comic inferno." After Effinger's untimely death, preserving his work became an imperative for Golden Gryphon Press, and they now bring us the book Effinger labeled his favorite.

If Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, and Robert Sheckley had heard only a rumor of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (1930) and then decided to collaborate on trying to reproduce that hypothetical Ur-text, they might possibly have come up with a novel as tragicomically unsettling as Effinger's The Wolves of Memory (1981). Exiled by a snarky, secretly suicidal computer named Tect to a planet that fosters Alzheimer's disease in human immigrants, Sander Courane must overcome his own personal limitations to win a pyrrhic victory against the demented machine.

This absurdist, melancholy novel is the centerpiece of the generous omnibus A Thousand Deaths, which also features seven short stories starring Courane. But Effinger's trickster impulses insure that Courane dies and is reborn in a variety of contradictory, outrageously inventive roles. A combination of Kilgore Trout and Wile E. Coyote, Courane stood in for Effinger and his ill-starred life — a biography heartbreakingly summarized in Andrew Fox's compassionate afterword.

. . . .

— Paul Di Filippo, Barnes & Noble Review, October 1, 2007

(Note: Three other books were reviewed in this article by Paul Di Filippo.)


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