JChan’s first racing novel begins in Melbourne In the late eighties. The planet, so as not to put an exact point on it, is “exhausted”. Most people who can afford it spend their mornings climbing into jelly-filled pods to log into a fun, more beautiful version of Earth called Gaia, where advanced coding provides the sense (or at least the sensation) of taste, smell, and even touch. The central quartet of writers, Tao Yi and her boyfriend Naveen, and their friends Zack and Evelyn, live so much of their lives there that when technology arrives to allow for a full “load” it feels like a forced consequence. Except for Tao Ye, she is not.
Is it just nostalgia for the past? What exactly does she worry about being left behind? In digitizing the mind-body problem, each version of you turns it into a very literal and material question: If you could leave your body, right? In his disturbing story of 1909, The machine stopsForrester answers this question from the other side: If you can return to the physical world, can you? In Forrester’s story, a The woman lives contentedly in her little underground pod, where she is washed, dried and fed while exchanging “high” ideas with like-minded minds in other centuries around the world. The machine meets all her needs. Her son’s claustrophobia only annoys her – she thinks he is a stubborn and retarded heretic. He believes that the machine has robbed humanity of its “sense of space and sense of touch”. The bleak ending of the story is easily readable – especially coming from EM “Only contact” Forrester – because of the fear of technology. A century later and soon after, Chan’s relationship with cyberspace becomes more and more mysterious for understandable reasons.
Naveen suffers from a debilitating health condition, which complicates and simplifies the equation. For him, loading is a salvation that does not require thinking: only in virtual reality can he be his authentic self, unhindered by the painful betrayals of his body. (Chan’s vision for the future includes a reasonably disturbing gap between advances in consumer technology and those in more basic medical or social care.) But Tao Yi struggles with a vague grief, certain that the loss of tactile contact goes something fundamental to their bond. While the novel is told in the third person, we live in Tao Yi’s perspective, and her thirst for bodily sensations Gaia can’t quite replicate (the taste of homemade mapo tofu, the stench of Naveen’s neck, even the hot, toxic air of Melbourne’s increasingly uninhabitable streets). “Distance has nothing to do with intimacy, now,” she ponders after a virtual party reunion—however, we, and we, are not convinced.
After loading, Naveen’s brain expands and speeds up – he becomes a “digital ghost” that haunts interests, emotions, and languages. Tao Yi sees this boundless transformation as self-dissolution, but Navin asks her to consider the dangers of “underdevelopment”: old age, dissolution, and the possibility of her inheriting the depression of her mother and grandmother. Chan, her day job in psychiatry, investigates the brilliant idea of how much we can know “ourselves” at all, and what we value in making up. Are friction, shock, and discomfort an integral part of it? Why Not Eliminate them, to become “new human beings, directly powered by solar energy and electricity”?
Tao Yi, looking back at the twenty-first century, wonders how sick her mother is.” sadness for the worldThe elephant in the room as in the lot cli-fi, is capitalism: In Chan’s future, technology has improved but the system has not. Neuronetica-Somners, the parent company of Gaia, which caters to the wealthy, replaced Apple and then Dandelion. Many are trapped by the cost, stranded on the ground without more trees. (It’s possible, after reading this book, that you’ll never turn on the tap the same way again.) Those without homes take shelter under UV-reflective blankets, their bodies disfigured and broken by chronic sunburn and lung disease, ignored by those left behind. (“It’s hard to think critically about things that satisfy your most basic needs.”) Even people who have access to Gaia’s addictive consolations often seem to break down the ways their trading system is totally inappropriate and unwilling to address them. Likes Mark Fisherevery version of you argues that capitalism (more than say, the Internet) is the cause of all the problems we keep using to try to solve them.
Chan’s novel is full of a sense of stagnation and inevitability, a quiet doom. With all her friends loaded up, Tao Yi is drowning in the “enduring homesickness” she’s felt since moving from Malaysia as a teenager. She cannot see Gaia as home, and by being away from it, she seeks something that connects her to her roots – but she is also “shattered, or not built at all”. In a recent article, Critic Sher Tan writes That comparing life online and offline is asking the ‘wrong question’ and getting caught up in the (wrong) routine ofdigital binary— because most contemporary life is woven from both at once.
That’s not what Tao Yi – or chan – does. Confronting what may one day be left on a devastated “offline” land is a powerful way to refocus the lens on the world we currently make, and the politics that inform what we build – whether it be bricks or code.