APRIL 24, 2021
IN EPISODE 70 (“The Nightmare of History”) of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct, hosts Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders and guest P. Djèlí Clark discuss the ways that genre fictions (such as SF and horror) give authors new ways to write about personal and cultural histories by foregrounding the similarities between generic conventions and real-world phenomena. Newitz, for example, invokes Tananarive Due’s recognition that the history of slavery is a horror narrative. What this means is that Due’s work, and the work of many in the horror genre, is not just to try to imagine new horrible things; instead, these authors see the awful things that are already present in the world and use the conventions of horror to highlight them. Narratives such as Get Out and Lovecraft Country, they argue, take the familiar tropes of horror and use these to express the historical horrors of colonialism, sexism, and racism. These authors have the added benefit of using horror’s own tropes against the racist narratives of authors like H. P. Lovecraft, who used the genre to express his own prejudices regarding miscegenation and immigration.
Similarly, dystopian fiction is a reflexive genre that — when doing its best — does not simply imagine a world like our own with added dysfunction, but rather attempts to locate and diagnose dysfunction in our own society. Dystopian narratives strive to observe social mores and stretch them to their logical endings — sometimes as a warning, sometimes to test our moral fortitude and make us challenge our own views, and quite often as a way of generalizing personal anxieties. The aspiration of many dystopian authors must be to find common ground with readers who share these anxieties in order to create identification between the reader and characters in the novels. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, achieved broad acclaim and popularity precisely because many felt the same creep of religious fundamentalism in real life and feared the extension of personal prejudice into systemic misogyny. Likewise, if a dystopia is about authoritarian surveillance, drugs used to suppress emotion, or banning literature and creative thought, there must still be some shared fear that society will mold the individual will against itself. At the same time, the dystopian novel also plays on themes of isolation, since it is often the protagonist of the dystopian novel who alone realizes or attempts to call out such dysfunction.
The central tension in many dystopian novels emerges at the intersection of these elements: the dysfunction in the dystopian society combines with the sense of isolation that the protagonist experiences to convince them that, not only is there something sinister happening in the world, but that they are the only one to see it. But as necessary as this isolation is to the continuation of the dominant culture’s narrative, such isolation is often illusory, a tool of an authoritative and dominant culture that aims to discourage dissent by effacing the individual for the benefit of the collective.
Lee Matthew Goldberg steps into the crowded field of contemporary dystopian novels with his new book, Orange City, a novel that asks the reader to examine contemporary anxieties about advertising, managing emotions via substances, surveillance, and body augmentation in a post-American world. Goldberg presents us with a fresh take on the way that advertising and consumption operate on the psyche to mute self-consciousness and replace it with raw need and uncontrolled emotion. Whereas many other dystopian novels feature protagonists with clear-eyed visions of the world, Orange City offers an alternative of nested revelations in which the protagonist gradually learns more about his own society and his position in it. Goldberg structures the novel so that his protagonist relives a variety of mirrored episodes and first must overcome his own mental confusion and cycle of addiction to see the world around him for what it truly is.
Goldberg sets the novel in an undefined future after a war has ravaged America, destroyed the landscape of the country, and left many of the surviving population mutated. Inside the eponymous City, however, the world has somewhat recovered and is now ruled by a mysterious figure called “The Man.” The primary narrative follows Graham Weatherend, a man stuck in a job in an advertising firm who becomes a guinea pig for a new brand of soda that he is supposedly test-marketing. The sodas Graham drinks conceal mood-altering substances which cause him to act erratically and which, in turn, cause him to question his own sense of reality. Graham’s sense of isolation grows over the course of the novel as he finds himself unable to understand his mood swings and his growing disconnection from reality. Graham and his co-workers are monitored in their daily activities and are hyper-aware of the hidden cameras that they know surround them. Goldberg explores the blending of work life and private life in this novel by closing off Graham’s world to include only those with whom he works. The limitations of Graham’s social circle reinforce the centrality of work in modern life; Graham was already isolated in his own world even before the events of narrative further isolate him.
One of the story’s strengths is its ability to layer multiple competing anxieties in Graham’s life so that he feels disoriented and unable to fully identify the sources of his stress. The drugs he unwittingly ingests destabilize him further, and this confusion fuels a sense of isolation and paranoia. The narrative repeatedly confronts the protagonist and reader with images of bodies that have been damaged by war or mutation that serve as a constant reminder of the lost America and their place in a new society. Because Graham is working on a new branding project, he is perpetually aware of the advertising around him. These and other stressors in Graham’s personal life build so that it is not a single incident that pushes him to a breaking point, but rather a constant push of intolerable agitations from all directions. Graham’s sense of isolation grows as he begins losing people in his limited circle until, in the tradition of Orwell and Atwood, Goldberg allows his protagonist to emerge from his sense of isolation slowly, so that he comes to realize that he is not completely alone in recognizing the damaging elements of his society.
One of Goldberg’s central accomplishments is to put the reader directly into Graham’s desire-fulfillment-regret cycle — a cycle that he himself does not understand for much of the novel. The addictive nature of the sodas that he drinks drives his need. This need isolates him in a way that is more effective than the state of anomie he experiences at the beginning of the story. Not only is he caught alone in this cycle, but he is also confounded by the fact that he cannot fathom what is happening to him, nor why this is not happening to others. He is alienated from those around him as much as he is isolated from himself and from his own drives.
The sodas ultimately turn Graham from a rational human into a creature of raw desire and need. This, I think, is one of the key anxieties at the center of the novel, and it is what stands out the most in the story. The connection Goldberg makes between advertising and consumption, and the way that this confuses our senses of desire with actual need (while also blending in physiological addiction) so that we can no longer tell when we have been manipulated is central to Graham’s experience, and it reflects more accurately aspects of our own world than some of the other more speculative elements of the narrative. So many other dystopian novels focus on stripping away emotion or creating a rational and ordered society that to turn the method of control away from rationality so that it is our emotions that are manipulated in ways we cannot detect seems all the more frightening.
There are portions of this text that gesture toward a larger story — and there is already a planned sequel, Lemonworld, in the works. Because of the anticipation of a second novel, there are some elements of the world that Goldberg creates in Orange City that are not yet fully formed for the reader. The advertising scheme is interesting, and the author does well in drawing his characters, but I did not get a full understanding of what the bigger picture was or how the different pieces fit together. There are world-building elements that are hinted at but left unexplained, and I found myself wanting to know more about what happened to America and its citizens, how the City came into being, and how the Man came into power. These are elements that I hope Goldberg will develop further in the sequel to this book.