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MultiReal by David Louis Edelman | Book Review

January 8

The labels “science fiction” and “speculative fiction” have long been entwined, with speculative fiction variously considered synonymous with science fiction or an umbrella that contains science fiction. And indeed most science fiction is speculative, either in the form of selective futurism,multireal extrapolating and highlighting present trends, or as thought experiments on present questions of human nature (or both). What is increasingly interesting then about David Louis Edelman’s Jump 225 trilogy, of which MultiReal is the second volume, is how it is becoming less a work that addresses the present indirectly, through such speculation, and more a work that seeks to directly capture the zeitgeist, the feeling and the texture of the present. It does so not by in-depth mimicry of the present, but by using science fiction to construct a credible model of the present.

Consider: in Edelman’s far-future Earth, the principal military conflict–expressed in remote warfare and local acts of terrorism–is between those regions of the planet that embrace free markets to drive innovation along with pragmatic rather than fundamentalist government, and those (mainly the concentrated in the Middle East) who reject society’s advancements on religio-ideological grounds. In the more “modern” regions of the planet, the central political-philosophical question is the divide between those interested in libertarian ideas of limited central government and free markets, and the more regulatory-minded governmentalists. Into this mix is thrown a new technology that promises to revolutionize how society works–although nobody is yet sure how, and it is equally hailed as a tool of the privileged and as an equalizing force. Some suggest that information wants to be free; meanwhile energetic, upstart small businesses leap into the breach to determine how to sell the new technology, circumventing established business models and agencies, working long hours at the behest of feverish entrepreneurs for the promise of future reward.

Any similarities to the past decade–the conflict in the Middle East, the Internet boom and the growth of the information economy, the conundrums of party politics in America and abroad, and the increasing awareness of the average citizen in Western societies of just how varied the realities are that different people in the world may live by–are entirely not coincidental. The real year of MultiReal is right around 2001.

To be sure, Edelman has embedded an impressive assemblage of futuristic ideas and technologies into the Jump 225 trilogy; all but the most buffered of futuristas will have their sensawunda cache filled. Implanted nanotechnology combined with a globe-spanning wireless network allow people to project to any location and see and be seen as if they were physically present; a centralized medical database allows immediate internal diagnosis and treatment of injury and disease via the same in-body nanotech; buildings inflate and collapse every day and night, as needed; governments have become virtual, decoupled from nations, with individuals subscribing to one or more based on personal ideology.

What now seems clear, two books into the trilogy with MultiReal, is that the function of these ideas is largely reductionist rather than speculative. Malicious “black code” may have replaced bullets that cause physical damage on impact as the weapon of choice in Edelman’s futureworld; however, this black code is delivered by darts fired by dartguns that need to be precisely aimed, have limited range, etc. Then as now, when they point it at you and pull the trigger, you duck. The intriguing idea that different laws and legal recourses could apply to different people in the same physical group–because they’re subscribed to different governments–never seems to matter in the story, because looming over all subscription-based governments are the central Prime Committee and its independent military arm, the Defense and Wellness Council; very much the embodiment of the modern State. What Edelman has done, then, is use science fictional tropes and ideas to create a model of modern society stripped of (arguably) extraneous elements: individual nation-states; the maze of different religious sects; the logistics of travel; environmental concerns; simple military solutions. What remains is the ongoing external conflict of our time between liberal modernity vs. traditionalism, which is both put into focus and confused by an internal conflict spurred by new technology and the socio-economic paradigm shift it brings.

In fact it is still not entirely clear, even after this eponymous volume of the trilogy, just what the new technology, multireal, is. What MultiReal (the book) does do is clarify what multireal (the technology) represents: something of the promise and goal of technology itself. Here as elsewhere, Edelman seems less concerned with providing ultimate factual answers, and more with portraying an understanding of what it feels like to be aware that one is living in times of uncertainty and change, of promise and conflict, and the struggle for individuals and social groups to come to their own understanding of what a new technology’s broadening of perspective and enabling of possibilities can (and should) be used for.

These possible understandings are largely embodied by the characters of MultiReal. Understood as a work of description rather than speculation, it is no criticism to note that MultiReal makes no attempt to speculate on how history and technology would impact the way its characters act, think, and speak. Indeed, Edelman consistently uses organic–often primitive–metaphors and similes, rooted in plants and (especially) animals, to reduce any sense of cognitive estrangement. There’s even a bit of humor as the Defense and Wellness Council’s squad battle commands are encoded into something that sounds a great deal like Fast Company-style marketing-gibberish from the late-1990s.

What is more of a problem are the characters’ rather elemental, one-dimensional sense of self and others conveyed by the at-times overly melodramatic narration of MultiReal. Magan Kai Lee, the prime new viewpoint character in MultiReal, is the epitome of the rational human: he idealizes stability, discipline and rigidity, seeing with a “cool eye,” “determined to show no trace of emotion,” his voice “keen and deadly as a razor” while “calculating odds, extrapolating possibilities” (pp. 43-44 ARC). Early hints of depth–“Magan Kai Lee was a man of reason and principle, or so he told himself” (p. 46)–remain unexplored. Similarly, Natch, the ambitious and chaotic libertarian entrepreneur, and Jara, his company’s idealistic business analyst, each experience doubts and are forced to take stands, but in ways that simplify their positions rather than adding depth. Jara comes to view her employer as “sinister” and his actions as “mad villainous deeds” (both p. 279). While we learn something of Jara’s past in MultiReal, Edelman resorts to a rather hackneyed shortcut to explain Jara’s mix of cynicism and romanticism, rather than giving her backstory the same level of detail as given to Natch. Natch, meanwhile, is perhaps most melodramatic of all:

The nothingness was coming to claim him. And Natch knew that all the battles he had fought before were merely the opening skirmishes of a much larger campaign against this nothingness. It was a campaign he could not afford to lose. (p. 33)

The problem with this melodramatic approach is that it eliminates any dialog between the understandings the characters represent. As Infoquake was a novel of economics, so MultiReal is a novel of politics; you can feel the story trying to dig into the zero-sum game that spawns the social contract on which the political economy of liberal modernity is based. Each character positions themselves in a different formulation on the ends vs. means spectrum–but we can feel Edelman waiting in the wings to yank the framework of ends and means out from under their feet with the introduction of multireal technology.

The founding father of the Defense and Wellness Council needed no caption, but bold block letters at his feet did pose a question.

DO YOU ACT IN JUSTICE?

The locution has always seemed peculiar to Magan. Acting in justice, not for or with; justice. (p. 45)

But what Edelman has done is taken the external sham of what passes for public political debate in modern times, and transplanted it into the inner thoughts of people who should know better–all the pondering of rotten and sinister villainy, of savages (p. 440) and curses (p. 443), demons (p. 442) and princesses (p. 435) evokes the simple moral dualism of heroic fantasy, and sounds rather false and unconvincing in a novel of politics. This is unfortunate because one of the real excellences of Edelman’s story had been his creation of a cast of protagonists and antagonists unaligned to obviously right or wrong perspectives. A story where protagonists and antagonists possess equal shares of truth–and are all equally incorrect–has a palpable feel of verisimilitude. But that feel is spoiled if this is only the case because all perspectives are equally too simple. The limited moral argument embodied by each character can’t help but clash with the cosmopolitan, interconnected world Edelman postulates–and likewise with our modern world.

Not much more needs be written in detail about the plot of MultiReal; suffice to say that Edelman has largely followed the model for solidly good, if by now unsurprising, second volumes of trilogies (cf. The Two Towers, The Empire Strikes Back). The fellowship splits; we are introduced to a few new key characters–including the supreme adversary–and new factions of questionable allegiance; cracks appear in the unity of the adversary; a mentor passes on; romantic choices are made; and as the volume concludes, a core character is left suspended in limbo, fate unknown. It does what it needs to: both deepens and adds complexity to the lines of conflict, propelling readers into the final volume in search of answers.

The key matter of that final volume (the announced title is Geosynchron, itself suggestive of something that attempts to match the world) may prove to be not the specific answers it will give, but how many answers Edelman will offer. To do justice to capturing the present–if that indeed proves the trilogy’s aim–Edelman will need to avoid answering too much, may need to end with implications and outcomes still unresolved, the world still manifestly in motion. It is impossible to see the other side of a paradigm shift, and indeed one of the characteristics of modernity is the feeling that society that has strapped itself to the wheel of progress and now finds itself quite unable to slow down. On the other hand, to make the trilogy work as story, some measure of conclusion will be needed; perhaps this is why the characters of MultiReal increasingly take positions that can be resolved. Right now, there is an uneasy tension in the trilogy between these two theoretical frameworks. But then again, that, too, is nothing if not reflective of the present.

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