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Everyone in Silico
Reviewed by Ivan Lerner, © 2002

Format: Book
By:   Jim Munroe
Genre:   Science Fiction
Released:   November 2002
Review Date:   November 30, 2002
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

As part of its media blitz promoting Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Coca-Cola has an ad currently on television declaring the soda company's sponsorship of a new book mobile program. In the commercial, before the big red Coca-Cola logo pops up, we see the helpful owls of Hogwarts Academy swooping down, delivering various tomes to a racially balanced mix of noble-looking inner city kids, all of them, the ad implies quite heavy-handedly, potential wizards themselves.

While I think a book mobile program is a great idea, and that what the people at Coke are doing certainly seems noble, I can't help but worry that there's a more insidious plan here. The Wall Street Journal had an article a few months ago about liquor companies' attempts to enter the wine cooler/malt liquor market, and how most of the sales of these ancillary products were poor. However, The Journal pointed out, the massive ad campaigns pushing these lite-liquors have been paying off in terms of market recognition. Liquor companies are limited to where they advertise their 'hard' spirits, but these new products are regulated as if they were beer, which means that they can be advertised everywhere. The 'hard cider' division of Brand X Booze might be taking a loss, but the overall gains for the corporation are worth it. So Coca-Cola might not be gaining any revenues from giving poor kids some books, but if those book-mobiles are plastered with 'Sponsored by COKE!' signs, then that positive brand recognition is worth the price.

If this blurring of the lines between social, corporate and government structures disturbs you too, then you must pick up Jim Munroe's recently published Everyone in Silico ($13.95; 241 pages; Four Walls Eight Windows, www.4w8w.com).

Fast, sharp, almost too smart for its own good and packing a powerful punch, Everyone in Silico (EiS) is the best new SF novel I've read all year. Reading it, I was reminded of how I felt when I first saw Fight Club: energized and excited. Here was something that I felt was written with me completely in mind.

Munroe presents a world where advertising and consumerism are ubiquitous and total: godlike. He creates a bright and shiny future that is a pure hell. If you think things are bad now, here's a future that would give Marshall McLuhan a psychotic episode. As a warning of things that may come, the book respects SF, and unlike so many other 'modern,' 'hip' or 'contemporary' authors, Munroe doesn't play fast and loose. He invents some rules and sticks to them, giving us a well-constructed plot with no bolt-ons or Deus ex machinas.

Above all else, this book is so much FUN to read: dense and detailed, it's also the epitome of a page-turner. Taking place in the year 2036, the novel is mainly set in Vancouver and 'Frisco.' Frisco is not San Francisco (that was demolished in the big quake), but a cyberspace megalopolis with mile-high buildings owned and operated by the Self Corporation. For a fee, Self will download your 'software' (everything: your memories, thought patterns, etc.; being 'in silico' is like being 'in utero') into Frisco, where you never have to sleep (so you can playóor workóall the time), where you can reinvent your image, where everything is perfect. It seems like everyone on the West Coast is signing up to go to Frisco, and whole neighborhoods have become deserted as folks sign up to make the virtual reality exodus.

But among other things, in Frisco, unless you're a 'platinum,' you will never be able to completely turn off the bombardment of advertising assaulting you 24/7. Things are pretty much the same in the 'real' world, too. Not only is reality overwhelmed by billboards and holograms, but random people on the street now earn money being pitchmen: if someone manages to speak a commercial jingle to you, they get credits. Of course, if you cut them off, they get nothing.

Thankfully there are people who want nothing to do with either dreadful place, and during the course of several witty 'slices of life,' we meet our main characters as they pass in and out of each other's lives, their stories weaving together. We meet the enigmatic and wistful media jammer Paul, who's got plenty up his holographic sleeve; and harried salaryman and 'coolhunter' (trend spotter) Doug (who, if he didn't at least have a decent sex life, could be right out of a Philip K. Dick novel). Then there's Eileen, the worried grandma with an army-issued bionic combat suit; and our ostensible heroine Nicky, a renegade biologist (with everyone going 'in silico,' no one wants to study living things anymore), who can grow mutant animals in her 'EasyBake.' Grandma Eileen, the killer ninja super-soldier, is a wonderful character and a perfect example of how Munroe subverts and plays with the genre. Usually, the owner of a souped-up cybersuit is some hot babe or Schwarzenegger type. Here she's a frumpy old lady who likes to bake cookies. Eileen's not really a grandma, but her years as a super-soldier have prematurely aged her, and she refers to her clone child as her grandson. She has a clone child because she was born without a uterus. It seems that the military determined that woman with certain genetic defects would be the best operators of the suits, and no uterus is one of the outcomes of said defects. Munroe slyly points out that if those certain genetic defeats occur more frequently near toxic waste dumps, in whose interest would it be to clean up those waste sites?

The characters feel real, rich with detail. Both Nicky and Doug worry about their hair, and Paul's memories of the past are tender (especially his scene mourning the death of an old friend: a librarian, she commits suicide in protest of Barnes & Noble's buying out and closing the last library.) (As a native New Yorker, it's with sardonic amusement that I remember when Barnes & Noble was a mom-and-pop operation specializing in hard-to-find books. How times have changed. . . .B&N used to have wonderfully goofy low-budget TV ads way back whenóa guy would show up at a genero-bookstore holding a stuffed moosehead covered in burnt chocolate. 'Do you have any books on how to make chocolate mousse?' he'd ask. After the clerk tells him that he should check out B&N, the guy would exclaim the tagline that would become the store's slogan for a while: 'Barnes & Noble! Of course, of course!' Of course, colorful local TV ads are pretty much extinct, too. Sigh . . . at least there's still Petland Discount. . . .)

The pain that these characters go through in this heartless, over-commercialized, intrusive world is almost unbearable. But I mean that in a good way: Munroe shows us how horrible life will (could) become if we keep allowing the corporations to parade on their merry way. At one point, Nicky is worried about another character's seeming recklessness on a bicycle. In 2036, bicycles are considered dangerous. Nicky's grown up watching PSAs showing that bikes cause accidents, like horrible three car pile-ups. 'Everyone used to know how to ride a bike,' Nicky's informed by some new friends, a couple of media rebels. 'But traffic got so bad that people were always getting in accidents or collapsing from smog and then getting hit . . . it was either change the automotive industry or make a bunch of scary public service announcements . . . [to convince citizens that cyclists were a menace.]' (pg. 49)

Reinforcing the potential reality of this world, Munroe uses real slogans and trademarks, like Mickey Mouse and McDonald's (where customers are warned the food may contain 'peanuts and human DNA'), and reinterprets familiar ones, coming up with newóbut conceivableóproducts like Reese's Oreos. Ever the prankster, Munroe sent an invoice for $10 to Hershey's (along with other manufacturers mentioned in EiS) for fees regarding 'product placement.' Hershey's didn't pay.

But optimism seems to be a unifying theme among the characters. Not Pollyanna-like idealism, but the faith in themselves not to give up. I love the book's indulging theme that not everybody wants to be a consumer, and that people will always struggle to free themselves from corporate entertainment (in other words, make their own wacky shit instead of just buying something). When she's feeling down because she's a 'useless' biologist, another character tells Nicky, 'Learning's never a waste of time, even in a science most consider archaic.' This is I think a wonderful idea that Munroe is putting forth. Maintaining your individuality in an excessively consumerist world is something that's been a bee in my bonnet for some time, and when smart, personal works like EiS (or Fight Club) champion this philosophy, I have to applaud.

With a devil-may-care style reminiscent of pulp novels and a lot of snappy dialog, Munroe agilely combines humor, smart SF and political commentary. In this scene, Nicky is visiting her mother in Frisco. Nicky has found out that her uncle was much more than just the family 'kook.' He had been the last of the insurgents against the proliferation of advertising, like a futuristic member of Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang, and we get a glimpse of Nicky's increasing political consciousness.

'Do you really think,' her mother said, poking at her, 'that a relative of your father would be part of a terrorist group who destroyed millions of dollars worth of equipment and endangered hundreds of lives? Just to stop a billboard going up?'

Nicky arched an eyebrow and shrugged. 'Well, it wasn't just another billboard. It was the moon.'

(pg. 90)

My only complaint: EiS ends somewhat abruptly for my tastes. I wish that it had lasted for at least 100 more pages, but I suppose it's better to leave the audience wanting more. After all, isn't that what marketing's all about?

IVAN LERNERô looks forward to devouring Jim Munroeís earlier two novels.

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