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‘Invisible Things’ demands a look

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Genre fiction has long been a playground for writers who want to explore complex ideas. Science fiction in particular has proven fertile for authors who seek to dig into societal and ideological norms – it’s a hell of a lot easier to address nuanced concepts when you’re operating from within this kind of fictional framework. Now, that’s not always the case – sometimes a story is basically just a story – but when it works, you can wind up with a tale of the future that offers one hell of a commentary on the present.

That’s what Mat Johnson has given us with his new book “Invisible Things” (One World, $27). Johnson embraces certain sci-fi tropes – future tech, aliens, etc. – and uses them to take a hard look at the fundamentals of human nature, as well as the societal constructs that were built so long ago as to be utterly ingrained – isms that are baked in to the point of disappearing into the firmament while remaining omnipresent.

It's a story about how people, no matter how their circumstances may be altered, will too often default to previous beliefs and behaviors. Even when offered an opportunity of complete reinvention, they cling to what they knew before. All this, by the way, contextualized by a domed city located on one of Jupiter’s moons.

Nalini Jackson is a sociologist and one of the crew members on the SS Delaney, a spaceship embarking on the first manned mission to Jupiter. She is there in part to conduct research – a first-person observation and experience of the group dynamics on years-long missions in cryoships. There’s some tension between her and most of the crew – they’re a bunch of gung-ho alpha-types led by the gregarious (and somewhat off-putting) Bob.

The mission is thrown into chaos, however, when they observe what appears to be an artificial structure on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Almost immediately thereafter, everything goes black … and they wake to find themselves inside the bubble, the newest “citizens” of a place called New Roanoke. By all appearances, it is modeled on a typical American city, with all the trappings therein.

It’s just, you know, in a bubble on Europa. And its populace is made up entirely of alien abductees. They’ve built a society that mirrors – for (occasionally) good and (often) bad – the one they left behind on Earth, with all the economic inequality and social striation that that entails. Oh, and no one can leave.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Chase Eubanks has spent the past few years telling anyone who would listen that his estranged wife was actually abducted by aliens. When his wealthy boss helps fund a rescue mission for the lost SS Delaney, he tags along. But when he lands in New Roanoke and gets swept up into the sociopolitical maelstrom they find there, he’s not sure what he should do.

Alas, as both Nalini and Chase find out – the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“Invisible Things” is precisely the kind of heady sci-fi that is in my wheelhouse. By putting a different spin on the standard alien abduction trope, Johnson is able to address and deconstruct the world in which we currently live. It’s smart stuff, thought-provoking and insightful. Oh, and it’s a hell of a story too.

Johnson’s New Roanoke (outstanding name, btw) has elements that echo, creating spiritual connections with similarly engaged sci-fi of the past – for instance, I found myself thinking of the Tralfamadorian sequences in Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” but of course, your mileage may vary. And while those connections and influences are present, there’s no denying that what “Invisible Cities” offers is very much its own thing.

This notion that people will gravitate toward societal striation, this desire to have more wealth, more power, more prestige – just MORE – no matter the circumstances might seem cynical, but again, it’s more nuanced than that. It’s a fascinating take on the power of dogma, asking if we’re even capable of letting go of the structures that surround us, no matter their flaws. Are our beliefs equal to our truths?

(It doesn’t hurt that one of our leads is a sociologist, and hence logically inclined to make these sorts of observations of the world around them.)

All of this rendered via Johnson’s descriptive acumen and sharp wit. I may have made it sound like a bit of a downer, but “Invisible Cities” is a great read, gripping in the way that good sci-fi usually is. It’s got a real satiric edge to it, one that Johnson uses to cut rather deep.

Writers like Mat Johnson fascinate me, able to move between and/or blend genres with seeming ease. “Invisible Cities” is yet another example of those talents, with Johnson unafraid to put whatever pieces together he needed to finish the puzzle. Propulsive and thoughtful and a bit transgressive, it’s the sort of book that you will never regret reading, no matter your personal verdict – and those don’t come along all that often.

Last modified on Wednesday, 10 August 2022 14:34

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