The Situation’s Gravity

T.C. Boyle’s “Chicxulub” begins with the first-person narrator describing his daughter walking down a street in the rain, then describing a woman leaving a restaurant drunk. The narrator interrupts himself to bring up the last time there was a “large-body impact on the Earth’s surface” and describe the damage it did. He points out that our planet regularly intersects the paths of much bigger asteroids than this most recent one. His daughter has gone to the mall to have sushi with friends, and he’s about to have sex with his wife when they’re interrupted by a phone call that their daughter was in an accident. At this point the narrator introduces the titular Chicxulub, the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. He interweaves passages describing its destruction with scenes of him and his wife at the hospital, where they have to wait while their daughter is in surgery, before she’s eventually pronounced dead. But when they’re called to ID the body, it’s a different girl. It turns out their daughter had lent her ID to a friend to see a movie, and it was her friend that got killed. The narrator reflects that he was spared, but that Chicxulub, the force that will “remake our fate,” has already arrived for the family of their daughter’s friend.

One of the interesting things about this story is that it has no chronic tension in the traditional sense to interact with the acute-tension event of the accident and case of mistaken identity. There’s no ongoing conflict between the narrator and his daughter that this event of her pseudo-death with push to the surface, or between the narrator and his wife, for that matter–Boyle seems to go out of his way on the latter front to assure us all is well there. What we get in place of this localized chronic tension–that is, tension between the characters–is what could be interpreted as a much larger-scale chronic tension: the planet’s chronic tension, the fact that our general existence is so tenuous. This tenuous existence works on the level of planet and individual, which is part of what makes this metaphorical thread effective. As the chronic and acute tension ideally do, the asteroid thread intersects with the hospital thread in the descriptions at the climax, when the narrator has to pull the sheet off the body:

The gurney is the focal point in a room of gurneys, people laid out as if there’d been a war, the beaked noses of the victims poking up out of the maze of sheets like a series of topographic blips on a glaciated plain. [emphasis mine]

and

Can I tell you how hard it is to lift this sheet? Thin percale, and it might as well be made of lead, iron, iridium, might as well be the repository of all the dark matter in the universe. [emphasis mine]

These descriptions of the acute event are invoking broad-scale cosmic imagery that would likely feel overblown without the setup of the ongoing asteroid thread. 

In addition to standing in for a more immediate chronic tension, or perhaps via standing in for it, the asteroid thread also carries much of the story’s emotional weight in the places where it could definitely tend toward melodrama in rendering scenes of distraught parents facing the death of a child. Only something as momentous as the destruction of an entire species could capture the emotional significance of such a loss for an individual. After the death of a child, life for the parents would cease to exist on any meaningful level. It may seem like a bit of slapstick that the momentous phone call in which they learn of it interrupts an intimate interlude, but there’s also irony here that the act that created their daughter is interrupted by a call about the potential death of that daughter.

The story’s opening is a virtuosic sentence that twists and turns, and which will also turn out to in certain respects be fairly misleading:

My daughter is walking along the roadside late at night—too late, really, for a seventeen-year-old to be out alone, even in a town as safe as this—and it is raining, the first rain of the season, the streets slick with a fine immiscible glaze of water and petrochemicals, so that even a driver in full possession of her faculties, a driver who hadn’t consumed two apple Martinis and three glasses of Hitching Post pinot noir before she got behind the wheel of her car, would have trouble keeping the thing out of the gutters and the shrubbery, off the sidewalk and the highway median, for Christ’s sake. . . . But that’s not really what I want to talk about, or not yet, anyway.

It will turn out it’s not his daughter at all, and the story’s point of view seems to technically be retrospective from a point after he knows his daughter wasn’t really killed–otherwise how would he know about such details as the brand of pinot noir?–so this has the potential to make the reader feel tricked. He subtly defuses this by adding shortly:

Maddy has a cell phone and theoretically she could have called us, but she didn’t—or that’s how it appears. And so she’s walking. In the rain.

But it also seems a commentary on our perception of reality and how tenuous it really is. Boyle renders images he wasn’t there to see–“the streets slick with a fine immiscible glaze of water and petrochemicals,”  but this image turns out to actually be crucial to the narrative, helping explain how the woman lost control of the car. In hindsight it’s actually a great description–one heavily mediated by the narrator’s particular POV and the frustrations of what he’s been through. Defamiliarization via the narrator’s voice is another tactic Boyle uses to convey the gravity of the situation (so to speak):

…she just had to see her friends and gossip and giggle and balance slick multicolored clumps of raw sh and pickled ginger on conjoined chopsticks at the mall…

Here Boyle is using defamiliarization to accentuate the narrator’s perspective, in this particular case, his incredulousness. We’ve gotten hints that his daughter was in a horrible accident, and so here he’s essentially laying out the reason that she might have died: for the sake of eating sushi at the mall. Many of us probably like sushi (though maybe not mall sushi); few of us probably think it’s worth dying for (especially mall sushi). While the passage is somewhat derisive of teenage girls, it is entirely in keeping with the perspective of a man who thinks his daughter might have died–or rather, as it will turn out, who was put through the ringer of believing his daughter was dead when she wasn’t.

 This is a very existential story, one big cosmic metaphor that literally invokes a cosmic metaphor, or something:

The room seems to tick and buzz with the fading energy of the larger edifice, and I can’t help thinking of the congeries of wires strung inside the walls, the cables bringing power to the X-ray lab, the EKG and EEG machines, the life-support systems, and of the myriad pipes and the fluids that they drain.

This is a nice objective correlative description wherein describing the literal clinical and medical technological mechanisms of life, Boyle is describing the larger biological and existential mechanics of it. He seems to be saying in part that we can only appreciate someone else’s pain if we’ve experienced it ourselves, while pointing out that it’s inevitable we eventually will. 

-SCR

 

 

 

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Plot, Character, Power, Candy

With all your power, what would you do?

-The Flaming Lips, “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song”

The two-part novel that consists of Daemon and Freedom is marketed as a “techno-thriller,” and its author Daniel Suarez as the heir to Michael Crichton. It is an interesting example to examine what differentiates the thriller from “literary” fiction, since its themes encompass social commentary that might well be considered more than just pure entertainment, despite its heavy dose of action sequences that seem designed for the silver screen.

The first book begins with the news story of the death of Matthew Sobol, head of the online gaming company CyberStorm Entertainment. The same day his death is announced, two prominent CyberStorm programmers die violent deaths, and Detective Sergeant Pete Sebeck is sent to investigate. After Sebeck receives a video from Matthew Sobol saying he killed the programmers, Sebeck starts working with Jon Ross, a suspect in the dissemination of a strange computer virus known as a daemon, who explains that the daemon is triggered to do things in response to the occurrence of other pre-programmed events, and so could be behind the murders. Meanwhile, Brian Gragg, a hacker who steals and sells identities, discovers an unusual game map when playing CyberStorm Entertainment’s Over the Rhine that leads him, in real life, to an abandoned warehouse, where he’s interrogated by a computerized voice. When the feds try to search Sobol’s estate, an automated Hummer kills several of them but stops short of killing Sebeck. At Sobol’s funeral, Sebeck and Ross meet NSA steganalyst Natalie Philips and her handler, a Department of Defense liaison known only as the Major. While there, Sebeck gets a call from Sobol’s voice telling him he must invoke the Daemon before he dies. On another attempt to enter Sobol’s estate, Roy Merritt’s team is burned to death, while Merritt miraculously manages to blow up the server room and survive. The computerized Sobol voice also enlists Anji Anderson, a disgraced news anchor, to cover the Daemon’s events. Sebeck is arrested for creating a Daemon hoax and murdering federal agents; Ross is with him but they let him go before Philips shows up and says they figured out Jon Ross was a fake identity. The heads of government agencies confront evidence that Sebeck was framed, but conclude that the public needs to believe the Daemon is a hoax.

In Part 2, “Eight Months Later,” the Daemon frees Charles Mosely from prison and directs him to an fMRI office, where he’s forcibly subjected to extreme video footage while his brain is scanned, and eventually he’s welcomed as part of the Daemon team. Jon Ross approaches Roy Merritt to get him to contact Natalie Philips to tell her the Daemon is not a hoax (he also confesses he’s actually Russian). Philips shows her higher-ups when Ross shows her a portal to the Daemon’s darknet in Sobol’s computer game. A group of random young men follow instructions to create a self-driving Town Car. An equity group corporation is sent a video informing it of being under the Daemon’s control; it can no longer access its own network. Sebeck triggers a new Daemon event by invoking it before he’s executed.

In Part 3, the CEO of the hijacked equity group is finally forced to acknowledge the Daemon is real. Philips wants to tell the public about all the networks that have been hijacked, but her higher-ups fear this will cause financial panic. She tells them about an IP beacon they’ve discovered the Daemon putting out with its own destroy function. The government heads decide they’ll use it to keep a few companies afloat that the global economy is dependent on, and destroy the rest. After the Major tells the equity group CEO which companies they’re saving so he can reallocate his investments, Brian Gragg shows up to kill the CEO with an automated Town Car. The same crew who made the automated Town Cars gets orders to make something they undeniably recognize to be a killing machine. Different Daemon operatives are directed by a computerized voice to meet up with others to pass off parts to connect to other parts, making a gun that’s eventually handed off to Charles Mosely, who is directed to kill several people in a particular room in what turns out to be a global coordinated attack on spammers. Sebeck is put to death. Philips and Ross have been working together, and Ross discovers the Daemon’s darknet.

At Building Twenty-Nine, a former Navy facility that’s now the headquarters of the Daemon Task Force, Roy Merritt drops off a package of computerized glasses he somehow managed to acquire that Philips is able to use to access the Daemon’s darknet; once they’re logged on, they see that there’s another Daemon operative in the building. It’s Brian Gragg, who is able to easily kill a strike team and escape from a locked room because the Daemon has hijacked the building’s security system. He destroys all the Daemon technology they’ve been able to gather as evidence and sends in an army of Autom8s to escort him out. Roy Merritt pursues him and his pack on a motorcycle but then is shot and killed by the Major from a helicopter, since he doesn’t want the public to find out about the Daemon and Merritt is drawing too much attention to the situation. Philips and Ross manage to escape the automated Razorback motorcycles and Autom8s before Gragg blows up the building remotely, but Ross flees the scene before rescuers arrive. Finally, Pete Sebeck is brought back to consciousness by a Daemon operative at the morgue. He speaks to an avatar of Matthew Sobol asking him to accept a mission to justify the freedom of humanity; Sebeck does because the Daemon is supporting his family.

The second book, Freedom, begins with a hedge fund CEO’s compound being breached by automated Razorbacks, which manage to infiltrate his panic room and kill him as part of a coordinated global attack on financial titans (similar to that on spammers in the first book). Government heads continue to discuss how to cover up the Daemon’s existence to protect the economy, with the private sector exerting increasing pressure. At Roy Merritt’s funeral, Brian Gragg shows Natalie Philips footage of the Major killing Merritt and tells her Jon Ross joined the Daemon’s darknet, while a lot of Daemon operatives show up and launch an aerial attack against Korr Security people. Pete Sebeck and Laney Price follow the thread in Sebeck’s HUD glasses leading him on his quest to the Cloud Gate to a demonstration about Anasazi civilization collapsing due to refusing to change their ways, and then Price demonstrates to Sebeck how easily people can be controlled by their data. The thread then leads them to a shaman on an Indian reservation, where they’re building efficient solar-powered structures and generators for long-term sustainability, and the shaman Riley teaches him how to use the darknet’s shamanic interface. The Major gets a business report on unprecedented drops in the growing of traditional crops.

 In Part 2, Hank Fossen is accosted on his farm in Iowa by representatives of the corporation Halperin Organix for using their patented seeds. Hank’s daughter Jenna is a darknet member and brings him into the fold after she manages to stop Halperin’s lawsuit. The Major is attacked by Razorbacks while on a resort but manages to evade them. Jon Ross meets up with darknet members in Hong Kong from the Order of (Roy) Merritt to forge some magical rings (the Rings of Aggys). The Major continues to evade Loki, and Ross is dragged to a meeting he actually rigged (to tell about the Daemon) with a former Chinese coworker whose company wants him brought in, but he evades them by using the magic rings to make himself invisible to cameras. Natalie Philips is called in to try to identify him on camera to kill him. Loki meets up with Boerner’s avatar, who asks him to bring him into the real world, and Loki agrees. Loki then uses an elaborate Razorback entourage to attack the hotel where the Major’s used his alias, but it’s a trap and the Major catches him. Ross sends Philips an invitation to play The Gate and they meet up in the game. The government spreads stories that immigrant gangs are responsible for the rising violence in the Midwest, when really the government is responsible for it. The Major cuts off Loki’s fingers and tongue and eyes. Eventually some soldiers show up in the facility where Loki’s being held and Boerner kills the guy guarding Loki.

 In Part 3, the private sector fully takes over the government. Ross meets Hank Fossen in Iowa and tours his sustainable farm. That night a military group attacks, and Ross helps save them before Sebeck shows up. One of the captured private soldiers is so impressed by the machine that interrogates him that he defects. Ross tells Sebeck of his fears that the Major and the “financial system behind the scenes” are trying to hack into the Daemon to take control of it. Natalie Philips is loaned to the private Weyburn labs and is sent to their outpost, the enormous Sky Ranch compound at an undisclosed location for Project Exorcist; private sector guys interrogate her about what she thinks about the “Daemon blocker” they’ve come up with that they think will allow them to take control of its Destroy function. The Major meets up with an old covert-war-buddy colonel as he, the Major, is unloading pallets of cash. They meet up with the CEO of Halperin Organix, who’s upset that paramilitary operations have been carried out in the name of protecting Halperin’s patents; when he’s rude to the Major, the Major has him killed with the cover story that “domestic insurgent” darknet members did it. They’re mounting an operation against Greeley, Iowa. Ross gets the news from their security drones that they’re being surrounded, and when he tells Sebeck, Sebeck’s quest thread appears again and directs him out through enemy lines into what turns out to be a trap; the enemy was able to gain darknet access by cutting off a darknet operative’s head and manipulate his thread. The Major’s faction disseminates the news that the private security forces are containing looting and anarchy in the Midwest. Ross helps fight the massive attack launched in Greeley, in which Hank Fossen is killed and which is finally stopped when Roy Merritt’s powerful avatar calls in laser-shooting mirror balls until the soldiers retreat. After Sebeck won’t lead the Major on his quest, Loki, now with mechanized fingers and eyes, rescues Sebeck and Laney as they’re about to be tossed in a wood chipper. Sebeck joins him and Taylor (Charles Mosely) on their mission to stop the Major and Operation Exorcist. Jon Ross breaks into Philip’s room at the ranch compound and she explains how they’ve figured out a way to subvert the Daemon’s Destroy function and that she thinks something bigger is about to happen based on how many forces they’re gathering. They use the darknet to search the ranch’s surveillance and find a studio they’re broadcasting the fake news reports from using Anji Anderson, then figure out they’re planning to invoke the Destroy function against everyone else and seize control in the chaos. Philips is upset that she’s the one who gave them the code to the function, while people on the darknet are upset Loki has as much power as he does to summon all the Autom8s to use against the Major. He uses them to violently breach the gates at the ranch. The darknet factions attack the ranch from all sides, but the darknet is knocked out when the Destroy function is invoked and most of the world loses power (literally–electricity–and figuratively) from a “psyops action” they launch simultaneously. But when the private mercenary soldiers they’ve sent to Sobol’s data centers get there, they find a video of Sobol saying that the flaw they took advantage of to take over the Daemon was planted and that he now knows who tried to take over the world, and has destroyed all their money. The power (and darknet) comes back on. The ranch forces surrender to the darknet factions but Loki keeps slaughtering until so many people disapprove that they summon the Roy Merritt avatar, who strips Loki of his powers. Sebeck’s quest thread reappears and leads to a port on the Houston shipping channel, where he talks to an apparition of a younger, healthier Sobol, who asks him if he should have done what he did, and if he should destroy the Daemon. Sebeck says no, and then receives a message from his son over the darknet, forgiving him. After hiding out in the ranch for a couple of days, the Major tries to escape, but is caught and cut down by Heinrich Boerner. The End.

Together, the two novels trace an unexpected arc when what originally seems to be the evil entity–Sobol’s Daemon–turns out to be the good guy. This concept of the good guy initially appearing as the bad is replicated in the text when Sebeck, the one in charge of investigating the Daemon, is framed and publicly executed for creating it. Encountering the framing of Sebeck in the first book, the reader likely still thinks the Daemon is evil for doing so, and by the end of that book Sebeck himself still considers Sobol evil and only goes along on the quest that propels his narrative in the second book because the Daemon coerces him into it by threatening his family–again something that likely has the reader thinking the Daemon is evil at the end of book 1. The second book introduces the concept of the darknet factions, and thus the positive effects of the Daemon’s influence, as well as the motives of the private sector, which, while revealed in book 1, then emerge as the dominant evil force.

Even at this point, though, when the good and bad guys have switched places, the plot is still more complex than good versus evil. Brian Gragg is clearly established as beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt evil in the chapter that first introduces us to him, in which he coordinates a rave and drugs a girl into publicly stripping and blowing him on camera; Gragg’s conscription by and alignment with the Daemon seems intended to reinforce the reader’s initial perception of the Daemon itself as evil. But then Gragg’s first act after the Daemon transforms him by imbuing him with power is to kill the CEO that the Major is colluding with, in the same act which reveals that the Major, who’s on the side fighting the evil Daemon, to be evil himself. Then there’s Roy Merritt, whose fighting against Sobol ironically turns him into a hero to the factions Sobol’s Daemon has generated, and who is killed by the Major, someone from same the side he’s supposed to be on himself. Merritt’s fighting for the Daemon as an avatar in the second book reinforces that we are now supposed to perceive the Daemon and its ultimate motives as good. The fact that Sobol’s and Sebeck’s names are so similar (something writers are generally advised against) further evidences Suarez’s smearing conceptions of protagonist and antagonist. But our modern corporatocracy emerges as the unequivocal enemy here. 

The overall concept is morally complex, that true social change can only come at a significant cost, likely bloodshed. Though many of the book’s elements may seem far-fetched (like the laser-shooting mirror balls), many don’t (like the private sector infiltrating the government), and if anything, it makes one consider the vulnerabilities inherent in our interconnectedness and in the consolidation of corporate power that shows no signs of slowing. By the end, the novels seem to be a full-blown critique of the New World Order concept:

They could finally unify the world under a single all-encompassing economic power.

What was the alternative, after all? Surrendering control of the civilized world to an uneducated mob?

Indeed, some of the scenes, like the one that opens Freedom with the greedy hedge-fund CEO being stalked by razorbacks, start to feel like revenge porn against the top .01%. Which is not necessarily not enjoyable, it’s just enjoyable in the way a candy bar might be–it tastes good and provides a momentary sugar high, but then there’s a hard crash caused by a lack of any meaningful nutrients. Suarez’s vivid sensory details bring a suspenseful world to life, but it’s one primarily focused on action rather than character development, and it is this that differentiates the thriller from the literary: the subversion of character to plot. In the thriller, the characters are pawns of the plot, getting swept up in it without having any control over it, while in literary fiction, the plot most often originates from something the characters themselves did. In other words, in the thriller, the plot is in charge; in the literary, the character is in charge.

Plenty of characters are explored over the course of these two books, but this is precisely the issue–there are too many of them, too many to focus on one long enough to reach a level of depth that feels more meaningfully human than plot device. Every chapter jumps to a different point of view, and though many of these points of view recur, they’re furthering the story rather than the story furthering them. The most significant character arc we get is probably Gragg’s/Loki’s, who gets the emotional catharsis of not being rejected by the group he tried to forcibly exert control over and subvert the spirit of–but in the end, he still feels largely like a pawn being used to demonstrate how any social system is susceptible to the will to power inherent in human nature, his mechanized fingers and eyes by the end a symbol more apt than perhaps intended. 

Then there’s the romance that develops between Philips and Jon Ross. This has potential because of their characters’ circumstances, Philips isolated because of her genius and Jon Ross a refugee with a dark history who’s had to keep himself isolated out of necessity–but by the end it deflated into stereotypical Hollywood cheesiness. There’s also the case of Charles Mosely, who gets a lot of detailed attention, with an extended description of how he’s conscripted into the Daemon’s network and then another extended description of how his long-lost son is extracted from by force from a drug dealer’s hive and installed in a posh school. The most Mosely ends up figuring in the plot is we see he’s the one who actually kills people for particular operations, but his role did not feel integral enough to warrant the page and scene time dedicated to him, more like a way to show us how things were generally done–but ideally you’d show us that while simultaneously showing something that was specifically necessary. Not to mention that Mosely has nothing approaching a character arc aside from being initially skeptical of the Daemon–somewhat. 

But a helpful lesson could derive from the intertextual materials Suarez presents at the beginning of chapters to help navigate his narrative–in the first book, news stories that are triggering new Daemon events, and in the second book, darknet posts and figures showing the tanking economy, like the value of darknet credits and the price of gas. The numbers are good for giving a sense of passing time between chapters, while the rest is generally satisfying because it comes into play in the plot directly, as when we get a darknet post complaining about Loki’s abuse of power at the beginning of the chapter in which joint darknet complaints will summon the power of the Merritt avatar to disable him. 

At any rate, the story is about the evils of private corporate influence penetrating our public government–this is the parasite running our system. The Daemon becomes the parasite on that parasite, as explored in an extensive metaphor in the “Red Queen Hypothesis” chapter and elsewhere, in an early discussion of exactly what the Daemon is:

‘Now combine an application like that – a widely distributed entity that never dies – with tens of millions of dollars and the ability to purchase goods and services. It’s answerable to no one and has no fear of punishment.’

‘My God. It’s a corporation.’

Suarez seems to posit that the only thing capable of wiping out a corporate system is a corporate-like entity. At the end of the day the story’s over the top, but that doesn’t make its potential warnings any less salient. So it’s more nutritious than a candy bar, but not as nutritious as it could or perhaps purports to be…so maybe it’s a Power Bar. 

-SCR