In this completely irregularly scheduled new feature, Kyu reviews a book. Books are physical objects made of paper containing words written in ink. Words are these things that you’re reading. Please enjoy reading the rest of these words about some other words in a book.
If Zoey Ashe had known she was being stalked by a man who intended to kill her and then slowly eat her bones, she would have worried more about that and less about getting her cat off the roof.
–Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits, by David Wong
Superheroes are sci-fi by other means. Although they’ve long been cordoned off in their own little subset of the genre, thanks largely to the insular world of mainstream comics, superhero stories share a fundamental DNA with those of Asimov, Clarke, Dick, and all the rest. Like most science fiction, superhero stories are about the consequences of a true instance of social disruption, often technological in nature (there are magic-based superheroes, but they’re comparatively rarer); they often feature a “what-if” secondary world where costumed vigilantism, alien beings, and strange new tech are all familiar aspects of daily life; and like sci-fi, superhero stories tend to tell narratives using exaggerated figures to explore themes of human nature, from the role of police and government in society to the nature and costs of heroism to the conflict between pragmatism and idealism.
When you think about it, the hidden connection becomes obvious. Blade Runner is really about a cop who’s up against powerful super villains, The Matrix envisions a world where the ordinary man becomes a Superman, and Star Wars showcases the titanic struggles between those who use their powers (telekinesis, mind control, super agility, electricity generation) for good and those who use them for evil. From the other direction, Iron Man and the Batman films are all about wealthy individuals who create and use spectacular new technologies to fight crime, Thor is about an alien from another dimension (a world with technology so sufficiently advanced that Arthur C. Clarke would plotz), and even a series as unbound from reality as Spider-Man is, at heart, a story about genetic manipulation and science run amok. But the superhero genre is so hidebound that the connection is rarely acknowledged, and for its part, science fiction often has much more trouble than its cousin genre predicting the social ramifications of its premises. Luckily, genius David Wong (editor of Cracked and best-selling author of the excellent books John Dies at the End and This Book is Full of Spiders, Seriously Dude Don’t Touch It) is here to save the day with a brand new book that blows the hinges off the division between superheroes and science fiction. Then it runs over the door in a monster truck with dicks painted on the sides, backs up, and runs over it again. It’s that kind of book, ie., awesome.
Unique among Wong’s short ouvre, Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits finally delivers everything its title promises to full satisfaction. The violence is both plentiful and futuristic, with people getting torn in half, vaporized, their limbs yanked or chopped off, shot up, burned, crushed, lots of exploding, and in one memorable instance, death by crotch fire. (And these deaths are invariably recorded on Blink, the crowd-distributed Google Glass-plus-Youtube entertainment source of the future.) Meanwhile, the suits are indeed super fancy and stylish. A+, would read again. REVIEW CONCLUDED.
I guess I could discuss some other things about it, though.
It’s true that FV&FS finds a way to tease the divided genres of sci-fi and superhero back together; the plot revolves around a new technology, disruptive even in this fucked-up future near-dystopia, that lets people become gods, and they react in part by falling into familiar (and then subverted) tropes about costumes, cred, and supervillainy. Likewise, Wong brings a very superhero-ish feel to the social dynamics of his society, extrapolating from current Internet trends to bring us a world where people are always being watched, recorded, evaluated, rated, and trolled, where an instant’s notice may find you in the feeds of millions of viewers–or just as quickly forgotten. The importance of what other people think of you suffuses the novel, from protagonist Zoey Ashe’s self-consciousness about her body and background to the way both heroes and villains throughout the story rely (in a world without institutions) on reputation and PR as both protection and weaponry. Some of the funniest parts of the book are when characters manage to puncture someone else’s carefully erected public image, like when a terrorist’s dramatic speech is interrupted by high-velocity Mexican food.
Wait, what? Yes, despite how serious I’m making it sound, this is a very funny, sometimes very silly book. I expected no less from Wong, whose previous two novels tell some honestly creepy Lovecraftian horror stories through the perspective of two underemployed fuck-ups who stumble blindly through the plot spouting dick jokes and curse words. Those books also had a few things to say about modern culture, class, gender, and friendship, themes that seem to be some of Wong’s regular interests, given their return here in a totally new context. What makes him such an enjoyable author, besides his unique voice and imagination, is his penchant for combining deeply felt social commentary with the hilariously stupid and/or profane.
That tendency is, if anything, perfected here in FV&FS in the form of Tabula Ra$a, the novel’s chief setting and Wong’s answer to Vegas, Galt’s Gulch, and other “law-lite” societies, where people freely engage in their vices as well as their dreams. Tabula Ra$a is a phantasmagoria of garish buildings (it doesn’t say for sure, but I swear Livingston Tower in this is meant to be shaped like a dildo), in-your-face advertisements (one of my favorite running gags is that, in the future, movie titles are very up front about what you’re going to get–like the new Bond film, James Bond Infiltrates a Space Station Full of Ninjas and Has Sex with Four Women) and larger-than-life characters from all ends of the spectrum. The policing is privatized and the parties are massive; screens fill the sky, and urban development seems to be planned ad-hoc via lawsuit. It’s a crazy place, and that’s before crotches start exploding.
What makes the book special, though, is how Wong once again marries a well-thought-out setting and plot with a very unlikely protagonist. Zoey is an overweight, 20-something, trailer trash barista with a smelly cat who suddenly finds herself being hunted when her father, the wealthiest man in Tabula Ra$a, dies under mysterious circumstances. She’s the target of a lot of factions, not least a sociopath with a metal jaw and a decent Blink following watching his every stalking, and for safety turns to her father’s former associates, “the Suits,” a group of four talented, stylish bad-asses who might or might not be trustworthy. The resulting conflicts and storylines are exciting and entertaining, even when the novel’s pacing gets a little wonky in the middle. But the key to the novel is Zoey’s totally unique perspective on all the madness she finds in her new locale. Sometimes she feels pure awe at the majesty of the city’s teeming neon society; sometimes it’s confusion and horror, like when she discovers a highly-advanced, talking toilet. Often, though, her response is a searing, righteous anger, and it’s here that Wong brings his extensive experience struggling at the low end of the job market to bear. Zoey spends much of the novel comparing the vast and wasteful wealth all around her to details of her life in the trailer park so sincere you know they have to have been lived, like the month she remembers suffering from a terrible dental problem she simply couldn’t afford to fix, suffering which could have been relieved by an utterly inconsequential fraction of her father’s immense wealth, had he merely cared. Another haunting, tossed-off sentence describes a group of middle class college students playing an augmented reality game in the park, literally blind to the area’s homeless underfoot. This pervasive sense of class consciousness throughout the novel feels very fresh and modern, even for science fiction, and it makes for an unforgettable perspective on some of the genre’s well-worn tropes.
I’ve been a fan of Wong (real name Jason Pargin) since before his first novel, John Dies at the End, was actually published in book form. (It began as a short story on his website, then snowballed into a novel. I actually have the first self-published printing of the book, which would make me feel all special if it weren’t a pretty crappy print job with bad glue and typos.) That first novel is still my favorite of his, partly just because I read (and reread, and reread) it long before he ever put out anything else, but also because Wong was unformed as a writer and it helped make his book intensely off-beat and crazy. It’s episodic in a way that’s technically unsound but which totally fits the novel’s story of a guy getting jerked around by random events way beyond his understanding, and Wong didn’t know not to go off into long, absurd tangential “bits,” like the part where his protagonist (also named David Wong) has a transcendental vision of a trundling beetle in a vast desert. Hoping to be led to a revelation, David follows the beetle around for about 30 minutes before deciding it’s just an insect moving at random. The joke is actually recreated in Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits, only more succinct, sensible, and integrated into the scene and the book as a whole. That example is just one sign among many that Wong is finally starting to get a handle on how to work his comedic sensibilities into a more skillful and accomplished story. His transitional novel, the JDATE sequel This Book is Full of Spiders, didn’t quite manage this trick, as the bulk of that book is pretty much serious, issue-heavy horror, book-ended by more comedic opening and concluding segments. TBiFoS is still a compelling story, with some very interesting things to say (particularly about our culture’s obsession with zombies and apocalypses) and the beginnings of a feminist critique of a traditionally masculine genre. But FV&FS represents his growth into a talented author fully capable of integrating his absurdism, genre deconstructions, and his thoughtful ideas about society and culture within a much more coherent and focused story.
Another sign that Wong has expanded his horizons with FV&FS is the way he uses his nontraditional female protagonist. Besides dealing with her newfound proximity to Tabula Ra$a’s ridiculous wealth inequality, Zoey also finds herself incredibly vulnerable in this new world. An early scene features Zoey on a train, talking to a cute guy and avoiding the gaze of a deranged, apparently homeless individual with a bunch of doll’s heads sewn creepily onto his coat; meanwhile, she becomes aware that she’s being watched (via Blink) by many on the train and a huge remote audience.
No one else had noticed the Doll Head guy doing his cigarette trick. Yet just in the time Zoey was looking in that direction, two other passengers had craned their heads around to look at her. She knew she wasn’t just being paranoid now–one at a time they would glance around their seat or raise up a bit to see over, peer back, then quickly turn around again when they saw she was meeting their gaze. The bathroom door bumped Zoey’s seat. The black girl shuffled past and she made a point to look down at Zoey again. She felt to see if there was something in her hair, but then remembered she was still wearing the knit cap she had pulled down over her ears during the bus ride to Denver. Were they making fun of the hat? Or maybe they were looking at Jacob? Was he a celebrity?
Without ever making the parallels explicit, it’s clear that Wong intends this scene as an exaggeration of the scrutiny women are put under in public places and how (here, thanks to a complex conspiracy plot, but in the real world due to much nastier things) women are constantly forced to question the motivations behind any form of male attention. Likewise, the novel’s villains are invariably, specifically men, driven either by a rapacious desire to consume women (literally, in the case of the metal-jawed killer who stalks Zoey at the beginning of the book) or by a macho need to dominate.
If anything, gender dynamics are even more exaggerated in Tabula Ra$a. Women are sexualized, infantilized, and commoditized in a place where prostitution isn’t just legal but commonplace (there are “massage” trucks here the way normal cities have ice cream trucks). Meanwhile, men like the book’s main villain, psychotic dickbag would-be supervillain Molech* command massive followings of the same kind of internet denizens responsible for Gamer Gate, his Blink viewers cheering on acts of horrific violence and tuning in to see Zoey threatened, often in sexualized ways (at one point she accuses of Molech of having “Rape Threat Tourette’s Syndrome”). Molech is emblematic of what the book considers to be modern society’s worst impulses, a kind of hypermasculine violence born of socioeconomic privilege and sustained by a deep-seated vanity:
“My name is Molech,” boomed the voice. “I am a man the likes of which you have never seen before. You could say that, in fact, I am no longer a man, but something more. I mean, I am still a man, in terms of gender, that’s not what I meant when I said I wasn’t a man. I’m all man. More man than you can possibly comprehend. I am well endowed. I am male on a level that you… just won’t even believe when you see it.”
And Zoey’s interactions throughout the novel continue to touch on issues of gender, particularly in terms of appearance. Zoey is as self-conscious about her body as she is her impoverished upbringing–if not more so, given that both the good and bad guys consider it an important part of her. Molech and his goons like to mock her weight and unattractiveness, calling her “the piglet,” while the Suits naturally consider an intimidating appearance to be an important part of maintaining a protective reputation. Ultimately this leads to an important clue late in the story, when Zoey realizes Molech is playing the same game. But it’s a struggle for her throughout to find confidence in her own appearance. She tends toward self-deprecation, particularly around the attractive people surrounding her. (“I get it. You’re a handsome Latin action hero. I’m a trailer troll with the wrong eating disorder.”) And on the same wavelength, she’s jealous of the only other major female character in the book, the absurdly sexy Asian hacker on her father’s staff. It’s a relatively subtle thing, most of the time, but it keeps us sympathetic to Zoey even as her circumstances change radically throughout the story. And it keeps us thinking about the ways in which even this apparently completely free future society still constricts and judges women.
Appearance and authenticity are important sub-themes in the story, particularly in terms of Zoey’s father, who was both everything he appeared to be (a very rich, very silly, very horny guy, the sort of man whose mansion’s front doorbell takes the form of a giggling, holographic stripper) and something else, too. One of my favorite riffs on authenticity in the book comes in the form of a running gag about a minor character’s samurai sword, supposedly a priceless relic:
Armando stood, and put on his jacket. Wu strode up behind him and held out a katana, handle-first.
“A gift, but only if you apologize for your previous mockery.”
Armando replied, “I would, but this blade looks exactly like the one that was ruined last night. The one you said was an ancient one-of-a-kind relic. This makes me think that you have a barrel full of them that you buy in bulk from Costco.”
“No, this is my last one. Maybe I have one more somewhere.”
Earlier, the same character casually drops in one of the book’s major themes when, still talking about his sword, he says, “Of course it is for show. But it is also real. Only a fool would consider those mutually exclusive.” Ultimately FV&FS argues that, even if you’re not the person you portray yourself to be, you’re definitely the person doing the portraying–that a projected image is real enough, if it works. And if it doesn’t, that still says something about you, that you tried to project it. This is another theme the book manages to neatly summarize without underlining, in a late scene involving a deceptive use of holograms. One of the things I love about FV&FS is that it constantly finds ways to express its ideas without being blatant or over-the-top, all while the actual seriocomic plot is constantly being blatant and over-the-top. This extends as well to the science fiction and superhero plot tropes the book quietly subverts–I’ll just say without spoiling that the way the book handles the “traitor” plotline is really well done (and really funny).
But the best thing this book has to tell us, I think, is what it really means to be a hero. A crucial speech lays it out in what may be the novel’s best (serious) moment:
“You say you’re not a hero? Well, I’m going to tell you the best and worst thing you’ve ever heard. Heroes aren’t born. You just go out there and grind it out. You fail and you look foolish and you just keep grinding. There is nothing else. There is no ‘chosen one,’ there is no destiny, nobody wakes up one day and finds out they’re amazing at something. There’s just slamming your head into the wall or your head breaks. You want to be a hero? You don’t have to make some grand decision. There’s no inspirational music, there’s no montage. You just don’t quit.”
What’s interesting about the idea that Zoey could be a hero–the overweight girl with low self-esteem who starts the novel literally being driven around by the plot–is that the Suits each embody qualities of heroism we traditionally revere in stories like this, qualities she doesn’t share. She’s not as brave or as strong as they are, not as ruthless and willing to resort to violence, not as sexy, stylish, or skilled. What truly sets Zoey apart is that, unlike them, she can’t shut off the part of her that cares deeply about what happens to other people.
This is where the novel really ties everything it’s doing together–its ideas on class, gender, social attitudes, and superheroes. To paraphrase Uncle Ben, it’s all about what does or does not come with great power. As it turns out, the greatest superpower of all is wealth–but how do you use it? Even if you have the ability to help people, thanks to talent or hard work or birthright or circumstance, do you care enough to do so? Through plotting, characterization, and world-building, the novel skillfully lays out these thematic conflicts between selfishness and altruism, freedom and constraint, vanity and humility. Do you try and help people who need it, even if there’s nothing in it for you? Are you prepared to pay the cost, even if it means giving up your ridiculously smelly cat?
With wit, invention, energy, memorable characters, an enchanting setting and strong themes, Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits creates a thrilling, original, and meaningful story. It’s one I can’t wait to revisit, and I hope David Wong feels the same way.
*This may or may not be reference to this Slate Star Codex blog post (or the Ginsburg poem it’s referencing), which uses the concept of Moloch as a personification of the destructive cultural gestalt arising from many people at once selfishly pursuing their individual incentives. On the one hand this is a pretty deep cut; on the other hand it’s the only other instance I know of where references to the Biblical Moloch are divorced from the concept of sacrifice (plus, I know Wong is aware of Slate Star Codex because he recorded a podcast recently based on another of Scott Alexander’s posts).**
**That may be the most pointless, tangential footnote I’ve ever written. Well, until this one.