The Internet Embedded in Your Head
Thomas Sweterlitsch’s debut novel envisions a future where the Web is a brain implant, emails are thought transmitted, and genuine human feeling doesn’t stand a chance.
In the future foretold by Thomas Sweterlitsch’s high-concept debut novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow, access to the Internet finally has been implanted in the brain of every Westerner.
A trip down the block erupts in a phantasmagoria of rebate announcements and come-ons, pop-up images superimposed between a viewer and the physical reality on which the eye falls. Emails, or “pings,” are sent with a thought, and Americans’ social network profiles hover above their persons, accepted friend requests resulting in the seamless transfer from one mind to another of professional milestones, favored entertainments, and solicitous photographs. The president of the U.S.A. orchestrates mass televised beheadings—widely viewed sex tapes of her teenage trysts notwithstanding—and the city of Pittsburgh (yes, Pittsburgh) has fallen in a terrorist act that ten years before ended the lives of millions in a terrible flash of light.
For better or worse, still in existence more than thirty years from now is the Amazon of Bezos, perhaps with an army of drones servicing its market needs, or not (has it managed to turn a profit yet?)—along with craigslist, JSTOR, and Al Jazeera, Cosí, YouPorn, and Twinkies, Target, Facebook, and All Things Considered. Zoloft is what doctors have prescribed John Dominic Blaxton, or “Dom,” following his arrest in Washington’s DuPont Circle after yet another heroin-induced fugue. Heroin is his drug of, well, not-quite-choice—he uses it to enhance his experience of revisiting his deceased wife, Theresa, who, pregnant with their unborn child, died in Pittsburgh. Yet Theresa, along with the rest of the fallen, abides in the Archive, a virtual reality sanctum programmed using every available video feed and retinal cam recorded on a given day. (To complement brain wiring, everyone walks around with retinal cams.)
The Archive is both Dom’s addiction and his job: he is a researcher noted for his diligence in solving cause of death cases on behalf of State Farm. Rather than issue insurance payouts indiscriminately to the families of everyone who disappeared, State Farm wants each death to be verified, employing legions of researchers a full ten years after the cataclysm to enter the Archive and track the disappeared over their final hours. “Most people visit the Archive for quick visits, to relive some happiness or indulge in a past normalcy or visit loved ones on birthdays or the anniversaries of their death,” says a hacker confronting Dom. “But you’re different. This is an obsession you have.”
Tomorrow and Tomorrow sports a lurid streak miles wide. Describing the aftermath of a gang-related bus bombing in San Francisco, Sweterlisch writes, “The scene’s grisly despite the extinguished fires, the skeletal remains of a double-long bus, blown-out windows, bodies lined up on the sidewalk wrapped in sheets, some of the bodies’ social profiles still lit, rapidly updating profile statuses despite being dead.”
“Despite being dead”: that final clause, decided overstatement—doesn’t the preceding bit already get it across?—tips into gallows humor. Such humor is a consistent facet of the story. Of all the cities in all the U.S.A.: Pittsburgh?
Beyond the territory of Philip K. Dick, Strange Days, Inception, Abre Los Ojos, Children of Men, and Super Sad True Love Story, the novel shares kinship with hard-boiled thrillers, where instances of overt humor are usually few and far between. Make way not for ducklings but for relentless darkness: so the operative mantra goes. Dom finds the body of a woman evidently murdered before the blast; when he starts asking questions, he makes some new friends, but mostly new enemies, and people get hurt. The one-time Ph.D. candidate (Dom used to wear a bowler hat) does what he can to decipher the mystery: he was delivering remarks on John Berryman’s Dream Songs when word of his wife’s fate arrived. She was at the mall, momentarily transfixed by a T-shirt featuring a lyric from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Dom knows this because it is a moment he has visited over and over again. Years in the future, someone, individual or group, is going through the Archive and erasing murder victims, replacing their disappeared images with attractive ciphers. Dom seems to be the only one who has noticed.
In a recent interview with Michael Cunningham, Ursula K. Le Guin commented on the process by which genre fiction is deemed beneath notice: “When the characteristics of a genre are controlled, systematized, and insisted upon by publishers, or editors, or critics, they become limitations rather than possibilities. Salability, repeatability, expectability replace quality. A literary form degenerates into a formula … and the genre soon is judged by its lowest common denominator.”
Tomorrow and Tomorrow is by no means the lowest common denominator, even if the writing takes pains to address the lowest common denominator. This has been the arena of noir for a while now, the sort of swerve a work like True Detective makes: fiction about misogyny, not misogynistic fiction.
For all its conceptual and thematic wow, Sweterlitsch’s debut does flag with respect to storytelling. Helpful explainers appear time and again where exposition might be needed, the dialogue tends to be cliché-laden, and the conceit on which the narration is based—that we are reading Dom’s journal entries—falls nearly flat. Regardless, a reader may be inclined to forgive these lapses when faced with the carnival mirror of our present day in Sweterlisch’s reflection of the future (e.g. see this week’s New Yorker cover where a man crossing the street with handheld screen is projected five hundred years into the future—humankind at the apex of evolution).
Ultimately, Tomorrow and Tomorrow is defined by passages like this one where Dom, reeling from depression, says to his caseworker and trusted confidante, Simka, “After Pittsburgh, once winter came, they used to run these PSAs about radioactive snow, do you remember? Those commercials used to stick in my mind—I’d dream about them—that person walking through snowfall. Everything serene, snow piling on trees, over lawns, on houses, before we realize that all the snow is poisoned with radiation. They’d list these symptoms. Tell us about Caesium-137. That’s what my depression’s like, Simka. I can’t really quite explain it, I guess. When the depression settles over me, it’s like I’m walking through that radioactive snow, that no matter how fast I run or try to cover myself, the snow will keep falling until I’m buried under—”
“I remember those commercials,” Simka says.