By Paul Dorsey
The Sunday Nation
Readers who take the trip into the future in Collin Piprell’s spanking-new science-fiction novel “MOM” and survive to tell the tale will be able to assure friends that their every fear about the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and Thailand’s pivot to totalitarianism is justified.
In fact, any pessimism we’re feeling about what happens next might be too optimistic. After an immensely enjoyable meander through Piprell’s profoundly philosophical, sharply satirical, densely coded brain, our growing paranoia about Google, governments and gadgets watching every breath we take feels a little naive.
But don’t worry! It’s not that the future is going to be particularly hellish – not at all. That coup meant to return happiness to the people will in fact impose “unrelenting happiness”. We’ll have pleasant enough lives, with robot pets and robot maids (ProvidAll “Dolls” that refuse to cook anything unhealthy). Our toilets will analyse our deposits for evidence of illness and nanotech “medibots” will course through our veins and cure every ailment, and spy on us too, of course – and kill us with blood clots if we get any revolutionary notions.
Within our peripheral vision, we’ll see an HIID, a Heads-up Internal Informational Display, ready to consult anytime. That’s your future smartphone. An ethereal character will keep saying, “Look at this!”, echoing what we’re all saying now on Facebook.
We’ll regularly get to leave our apartments and go “worlding” in spectacular virtual realities, safe within “magic circles” from all the horrors that have manifested “Outside” our apartment blocks due to man’s prior inhumanities to man. The Worlds are closed on Mondays, though, so Mondays really will seem to last forever (“Mondomondo days”).
No one will dare go Outside. If you do you’ll get “dissed”. That’s molecular disassembly. There will be no more plants or animals, no birds or insects. Those things first started disappearing in Japan “soon after the whole country was sterilised back in the ’20s”. That’s the 2020s (not long now). There won’t be any real children anymore, just simulations, and, since we all stopped reading books long ago, no need for writers either.
No one will be quite sure when or why the whole of Africa disappeared. Maybe it was lost in a memory crash, but anyway, everyone will live in just two places – either ESUSA, the Eastern Seaboard of the United Securistats of America, or ESSEA, the remaining habitat in Southeast Asia.
They’re both massive “malls”, the logical extension – along with a future variant on cargo cults – of our rampant consumerism, or “zoomerism” as we’ll call it.
Yes, we’ll still have malls. Don’t worry! We’ll all live in them in hermetically sealed apartments, with family and friends or their ghosts visiting anytime they like via “telep” versions of themselves that show up in holotanks. We’ll be “mallsters”, gazing out what look like windows but aren’t really. You might be in Bangkok (or what used to be Bangkok), but you can see an iceberg in the distance, one of the “freak atmospheric effects” now common.
We’ll be dealing in qubital cosmeticisation and magifacturing. Stuff will keep disassembling or replicating, leading to perfectly apt sentences like “All of himselves watch as he leaves.”
If this fevered future sounds a bit much, first of all, it is. And second of all, this is just the backdrop for an intensely complex story that’s by turns deeply pensive and delightfully amusing.
Fans of sci-fi might wish to debate the point, but “MOM” – released just this month as the first novel in a planned “Magic Circles” series – has to be one of the most jaw-dropping feats of the imagination ever accomplished in any genre.
The detail is staggeringly intricate and the senses duly teeter on overload. If there is a flaw to the book, it’s that everything imagined must sooner or later be explained, and the explications can run to many pages – lively enough, though, thanks to the engaging characters sharing the chirpy narration. As an aid, there’s a glossary at the back of the book. Go there first to study up on slowjoes and foglets.
So, yeah, “MOM” is not an easy read, but the effort is amply, assuredly rewarded.
At its heart – and despite all the dire speculation about what might happen next to redefine humanity – there is a profound recognition of the fundamental truths of our species, the facts of our nature that cannot be undone as long as we continue recognising them as such.
And readers in Thailand get a bonus. There are constant references to places and events here. There’s the Landmark hotel and the MahaNakhon building, and at one point a character finds it highly ironic that the Bangkok subway, which remained unbuilt for years because of fears it would flood, ended up the only part of the city not ?ooded. “And Chatuchak used to be the northern terminal. Now it’s Chiang Rai.”
In a “shabby, half-finished” World called Bangkok Old Handland on Soi Awol (Piprell’s first story collection was titled “Bangkok Old Hand”), the gnarled expatriates are “living out their days in a hazy cocoon” (no change there, then). You find the last male survivors fondling the ladies (mostly ebees – electronic beings) at Boon Doc’s haven and Shaky Jake’s Go-Go Bar, where the programmers’ attention to detail extends to the nostalgic odours of fried grasshoppers and “ancient cigar smoke”.
With all of this, and our bodies, minds and malls so secure, what could possibly go wrong? Well, artificial intelligence, basically. “Before you knew it, only the software itself knew how it worked.” And dear old MOM, the Mall Operations Manager who is life’s super-brain, is losing control. The Worlds are fading in and out of virtual existence and the malls are collapsing under concentrated assaults from Outside by the PlagueBot, a global superorganism of rogue grey-goo “blur dust”.
Salvation, if it’s at all possible, seems most likely coming from Cisco Smith, Citizen ZEZQ112, who enjoys drizadrone music and 20th-century R&B. He’s one of a fast-dwindling handful of top-gun Worlds UnLtd test pilots, relied on to ensure that newly contrived virtual Worlds are safe and fun enough for the masses – “giving the mallsters maximum kick, maximum distraction [and] trying to ensure they don’t destroy their minds in the process”.
Cisco is attuned enough to the inner workings of this freakish existence that he succeeds in escaping his besieged mall, past a long-abandoned retail concourse with its dreckads (direct ads) still barking out their tantalising but archaic messages. He braves the swirling apocalypse Outside and is led to the source of the mayhem by various strange entities, ultimately lured underground by a giant robot rabbit in jacket and vest who constantly frets about being late. Yes, it’s Lewis Carroll putting in an appearance, and the Mad Hatter’s tea party that awaits Cisco utterly defies encapsulation.
The extra-sensorial journey, the unspooling of the central mystery, and the story’s moving climax are beyond mind-blowing. The further adventures of the Magic Circles are keenly anticipated, no matter what else the future brings.
By Collin Piprell
Published by Common Deer Press, 2017
Available at Amazon.com, US$4.99 (Bt171), $14.99 paperback