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