Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Did You Fuck Her?

Where has science fiction gone?  Once, science fiction could rightly claim to be among the most imaginative, innovative, and subtle writing in all of literature.  But even as genre barriers have broken down (or perhaps because genre barriers have broken down), new science fiction writing has less and less to offer.  Just as the old stereotypes have faded away, they have come to seem more and more accurate, as if science fiction is determined to prove that its sneering critics were right all along.

That's why it was so gratifying to read Did You Fuck Her?, Dave Gottlieb's latest effort.  The book does not break any new ground in terms of the world it depicts—it is a fairly standard futuristic setting, featuring advanced technology and pervasive government surveillance.  What distinguishes the novel, though, is Gottlieb's fascination with the social forces that might bring such a world about, as well as his deft emotional touch.

In Gottlieb's rendering, the genesis of the hyper-surveillance state is in a Supreme Court decision affirming that individual and corporate rights are identical under the Constitution.  That is, every right that a person has, a corporation automatically has, and vice versa.  A clever tax lawyer realizes a rather startling implication:  for the price of a round-trip ticket to Ireland, anyone can "de-tax," that is, exempt himself from all U.S. taxation, in the same way that corporations do.  Soon, government revenue has dwindled to a trickle, and the government is forced to cast about for new revenue sources.

Then an opportunity presents itself.  A billionaire has been accused of murdering his wife.  He is innocent, but the circumstantial evidence is strong, and he fears that a jury might convict.  He offers the government $1 billion for surveillance data that exculpates him.  A new business model is born:  the government converts its internal security apparatus into essentially its only source of revenue.

I will skip over Gottlieb's description of the ramifications of this social change, simply noting that he presents a nuanced and, for someone ill-disposed toward the security state, surprisingly balanced view of the world that emerges.  (All right, I'll share one tidbit.  Pay attention to the way urban space is used in the world Gottlieb depicts:  the emergence of mass surveillance has made every neighborhood safe, at least in terms of violent crime, and so a massive de-gentrification has occurred as affluent people spread out into formerly undesirable neighborhoods.  Or so I surmise—Gottlieb never explicitly discusses why the book's urban geography is so different from the one we are familiar with.)

The more obvious abuses of the system are minimized because the system is designed to provide a valuable service while minimizing violations of privacy.  (Once rich and powerful citizens realize the extent of the surveillance, a robust system of checks and balances is very quickly put in place.)  "Monitors," as the government surveillance workers are called, are not allowed to see any surveillance data related to people they know.

Surveillance data is also never directly revealed to the public, even in a courtroom.  Instead, monitors, acting separately, review the relevant data and then sign affidavits attesting to the information requested by the client.  There are several layers of review, and assignments are randomized so that it would be futile to try to bribe a particular monitor in a particular case.  Independent audits, conducted by elected privacy advocates, reveal that the system's safeguards almost always work, although several law-and-economics papers demonstrate that monitors are among the only investors who make consistently above-market returns.  A small price to pay, though, for a system that delivers widespread safety and fewer wrongful convictions.  Or so the public generally concludes.

The plot picks up speed when Gottlieb's story focuses on Greg Offenbach, a monitor working in New York City.  Offenbach is asked to provide an affidavit for a banker in the city, Stephen Peretti.  Peretti, who seemingly has a gambling problem, wants to prove to his fiancé that he actually spent a particular day in Manhattan and not in Atlantic City.  Indeed, it appears Peretti spent the day in New York.  But there is a puzzling gap in the surveillance data:  42 minutes are missing.  It's not enough time to get to Atlantic City and back, so Offenbach could give the affidavit with no difficulty, but he keeps re-watching the video, again and again, noticing more and more details.  Why are the 42 minutes missing?  Did Peretti spend that time with someone Offenbach knows?  Could it be Offenbach's girlfriend, who works in the same area as Peretti?  At this point I will leave the book's many surprises for the reader to discover (only noting that despite what you might expect, Offenbach is not the character who utters the phrase that lends the book its title).

I don't know why Gottlieb's exploration of the paranoia and unease that accompany mass surveillance is so effective.  I suspect that it is because of his relentless focus on the personal feelings that are aroused in the course of operating the system (a feature that Did You Fuck Her? has in common with The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola's classic exploration of hypertrophied surveillance and the madness that results).  In any case, if you, like me, have despaired over the sad state of modern science fiction, I urge you to give Did You Fuck Her? a chance.  It may revive your faith in the possibilities for dystopia.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sarang's Sua Sponte

Sarang's latest effort, Sua Sponte, marks something of a comeback for the reclusive novelist.  Critics savaged his previous novel, Without Wax, and the drubbing was so severe that some doubted he would ever write again.  Personally I think the critical reaction was unfair.  The novel was ambitious and perhaps a bit smug, but it didn't deserve the almost universal opprobrium it received.  To put it into context, there had recently been a spate of novels featuring unreliable narrators, an approach the critics rightly bemoaned as tired and tiring.  Nevertheless, the critics were not amused when Sarang, by way of parody, introduced a hyper-reliable narrator, a tax professional who not only recounted the weather and headlines with complete fidelity, but who also divulged his "real" phone number.  Dial that number, and you would be connected to one of several dozen actors Sarang hired to help you with your personal issues while staying "in character" as the narrator.  The critics called this level of narratorial reliability a "stunt" and a "gimmick," though this didn't prevent them from dialing the number when tax season came around.

Sua Sponte could also be called a gimmick of sorts, but it is a very different kind of book.  Sarang took his inspiration from the true story of a judge who presided over a rape trial that resulted in a wrongful conviction.  Although the defendant was freed years later, his life was ruined, and he was picked up on drug charges.  Recognizing the defendant, the judge dismissed all charges immediately, to the consternation of the prosecutors.

The only element that links the 12 stories in Sua Sponte is that in each story, a character appears before the same judge twice.  A bankruptcy judge urges a chapter 7 debtor to think twice before reaffirming his debt (a process in which someone entitled to discharge his debt nevertheless voluntarily incurs the legal obligation to repay it).  But the debtor can't be dissuaded, and a decade later, the same debtor is back before the court, never having escaped the debt burden from his prior reaffirmation.

By the time you have read two or three stories, you find yourself spending a lot of time trying to predict what will bring about the second judicial encounter.  One story starts with an acrimonious divorce, and I found myself wondering where it would end—perhaps with a murder trial?  In fact that story ends happily, with the same judge presiding over the remarriage of the couple.

The final story in Sua Sponte opens with an emotionally charged courtroom scene.  A man has had sex with a mentally disabled young woman, and the prosecutors are seeking a rape conviction on the grounds that she can't consent.  But she did consent, the alleged victim insists.  She wanted to do it, and she is an adult.  The woman's parents are outraged the judge is even allowing this testimony, but the judge hears her out.

Eventually, the defense attorney successfully argues that his client (who is also mentally disabled) didn't commit a crime, but after the acquittal we wait in torment for the hammer to drop.  Which character will end up back in criminal court, and why?  Manipulative, maybe, but there's a term for manipulating emotions as well as Sarang does:  great writing.