Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Sci-fi of the hyperbolic present: Technicolor Ultra Mall, by Ryan Oakley

Technicolor Ultra Mall, by Ryan Oakley (EDGE Books, 2011), looks into the future and finds humanity conducting its daily affairs within the walls of city malls, the outdoors reserved for toxic air and garbage. Populations under a roof. For the lowest on the ladder, a dim and desperate basement. For the middle classes, shopping and distractions on their own bright, green level, and sometimes just distractions on the lower red level. For the highest, an unknown blue tier. Maybe they can see the sky there.

Technicolor is more William Gibson and Philip K. Dick than Isaac Asimov or Neal Stephenson, but it's not quite cyber-fiction, despite the highly connected setting, cy-fi vernacular, and video-game features. It's grim, dystopic, and all too close to reality. It doesn't romanticize a grand narrative. It is disjointed, frequently interrupted by fake advertisements and television and radio segments. It has subplots that collide in unexpected ways. It speculates on what happens when a society considers new ways to distract, amuse, pamper, and embellish oneself to be progress: better shopping, drugs, sex, television, and violence.

More than anything else, Technicolor is about violence—brutal violence—which is something I haven't come across much in my reading. I'm probably reading the wrong books. It shows its bloodied, scarred, disfigured, and senseless face right away. The characters, including the protagonists, are mainly members of a criminal gang. They're grotesque, self-serving, and proud brawlers and killers. They can also be obsequious, loyal, and wary of greed. These inner conflicts result in near constant taunts, threats, grandstanding, and frequent outbursts of intense and bloody brutality, usually by knife. It seems gratuitous, but that's the point. A central event finds a gang member volunteering to die under a guillotine, in the middle of a wake that is also a rave. The gang celebrates violence. It is creative performance; for some the only creative outlet they have.

Budgie is an adolescent gang member born and raised on the red levels of the mall. The reds are where the authorities send the undesirables in order to maintain peace on the upper levels. They are poorly policed ghettoes populated mainly by criminals, drug dealers, prostitutes, gamblers, and cheats. But the gangs profit from upper-level folk slumming it at red-level clubs on weekends, so despite frequent violence and general lawlessness, there is order.

Budgie's gang, the Vidicons, is ruthlessly expanding its territory, and Budgie has a change of heart after losing the closest thing he's ever had to a friend. Despite rising in the ranks, in the reds he sees only more dumb violence and a quick death. He devises a plan to decamp to the greens and start a new life. But he can't afford it right away. He's got to get a legitimate job, work his way up, before he can make the move permanent. In the meantime, he's got to face his comrades, who have no love for defectors.

Enter TeeVee, an alpha Vidicon hacker who scans the Info Dump, analyzing information to run criminal schemes and make dance music. (I should mention that Oakley displays a dry humour that corresponds to the setting, dark and raunchy.) TeeVee has caught wind of Budgie's plans. He wants a pair of eyes on the green levels to improve his data flow in preparation for a really big scheme. TeeVee doesn't want Budgie to spy; he wants to program Budgie so his eyes effectively become surveillance cameras, feeding information to TeeVee. Budgie accepts, without any real idea of what he's getting himself into, or any real choice in the matter. If he wants to avoid trouble with his peers, he's got to get out of the reds fast. He needs the money. Budgie also manages to woo Harmony, an independent-minded and equally disillusioned Vidicon who gives him hope for a normal life like he's only seen in old mashed-up movies.

A crooked jobs agent finds Budgie work outside the walls of the mall, maintaining the garbage sorting machines in the vast landfill surrounding. He allows his hope to grow, to reach for the horizon. Despite the drudgery of the work, the desolation of the outdoors, and the protective suit he wears against the deadly atmosphere, Budgie feels free like never before. He stares at the sky, awed and afraid. His supervisor warns him not to look at the sun.

It's fun, and it ends in disaster, but I don't want to give anything away.

I hardly need to point out the symbolism of the title, Technicolor Ultra Mall. The literal levels of the city-mall correspond to the figurative positions of their denizens. The poor and criminals live in the dim red basement levels, at the bottom of the social pyramid, where it is perpetually 2:00 a.m; where once overhead projections of stars shone, now interactive ads flickered, barely lurid enough to distract. It is out of sight, but just below the level of sanctioned activity. If they are chipped, red-dwellers are effectively prisoners in a jail city. Those without chips are just in hell, freedom within sight, but made near-impossible by social conditions. Above the reds, presumably at ground level, is "the lawn", the middle class green levels, bright and wide and tall, perfect for shopping and working, passable for entertainment. Every legal thing you want is available, but most things happen via television. Best not to think too much of the activities happening underfoot. Don't cause trouble, and you won't end up there.

Technicolor Ultra Mall is science fiction as the hyperbolic present. Its world is the delusion of a conspiracy theorist or an apocalyptician or the most extreme political commentator, a projection of the paranoid mind. Pollution may have made the outdoors unlivable, but finally, people are free from the stifling regulations of government (except harsh criminal law); commerce flows freely to its natural conclusion: the city as shopping centre. But despite the authorities' best attempts to eliminate the criminal element from polite society, racial and sectarian violence is out of control in expanding ghettoes that threaten the middle and upper classes! Look at how the de facto legalization of drugs and prostitution in the ghettoes has corrupted good citizens! Listen to the angry man on the radio! He argues like a champ and makes his guests sound crazy.

This is life inside a pulpy video game: competing gangs fight over territory, characters wear personal energy displays and carry strange weapons, they collect bonuses for tasks and reach distinct levels of achievement, and there is abundant graphic and cartoon violence.

The violence below the main floors exaggerates the violence that exists below the surface of our daily lives, directly or not—threats, pushes and shoves, looks, arguments, fights, assaults, gang violence, police violence, harassment and abuse, weapons, war, revolution—in person, on television, in the news, in sports and video games. Violence is everywhere, and we hardly notice it, we pretend not to, we acquiesce, or we participate, often without realizing it. There are people who can't ignore it, because it is integral to their life or livelihood. There are people who think some violence is acceptable, even necessary. They justify it. The rest of us pretend the world is safe: TV and video-game violence isn't real, only criminals are violent, war isn't violence, revolutions are for the unemployed, life doesn't end in violence. But it does, in fact, and Technicolor gives it to the reader in gory glory.

Beneath the violence of Technicolor are interesting, realistic, and sometimes exaggerated characters facing extreme conditions, on both the red and green levels. Communication is mediated by antisocial codes and television, but the characters manage to relate when they want to and when they try. They are still human, by turns repulsive and sympathetic, obnoxious and innocent. Without these conflicted characters, the violence they commit might be too much—too hard to take, too pointless, too blunt. Oakley makes it work and, as a result, the book is a strong first effort.

The central idea of Technicolor Ultra Mall is violence: how we can live with it, how some violence is better than other violence, how violence negates heroism. But it is full of sci-fi ideas, original and imminent. In the mall/world, shopping is the central act of citizenship; citizens, including red-levellers, undergo genetic/biological modifications (fur, wings, animal ears, etc.) as we might get tattoos; what is now on the fringe of science and society—pseudo-biological data storage, interactive TV upgraded with surveillance, transfer of mind between bodies, bio-digital computer programs, artificial intelligence, meme viruses and sicknesses, movie remixes/mash-ups, identification chips for criminals, animatronic fish, bio-digital pets, and on and on—is routine. Any one of these ideas could support a plot. Oakley presents all of them in a familiar but confusing world. Together with the well drawn characters, these ideas make the mall less blood red and more Technicolor.

My only complaint with Technicolor is the editing, which probably only bothers me as an editor. There are typos and double words that are evidently out of place, and I believe I noticed a couple of minor inconsistencies that gave me pause. Initially, I tried to rationalize the errors as a stylistic, as though the book was published in the time it takes place and language is looser. But it's clear that the book really just needs a good edit. In any case, this is the publisher's fault, not the author's, and it didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the book.

In Toronto, you can buy Technicolor Ultra Mall at Bakka Phoenix Books on Harbord, near Spadina, and no doubt other fine literary establishments.

Online, you can find it at Amazon, of course, in both print and Kindle versions.

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