A friend — a non-geek friend (and yes, we’re allowed to have them) — recommended this title to me. I hadn’t come across it, even though I work in a library and I read review sections in newspapers and science fiction magazines, and I am very happy that he did.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart is the best kind of science fiction: a social satire set just around the corner. A few duff choices by politicians, a new invention, the logical progression of current attitudes, and we’re living in this self-obsessed dystopia.
I wouldn’t go as far as describing it as a May-to-December love story (May to August at best), but the plot revolves around the love affair between Lenny, a middle-class son of immigrants coming to terms with impending middle-age, and Eunice, a young Korean-American trying to deal with traditional Asian family loyalties and getting ahead in the modern world. The generation gap is highlighted by the diary conceit of the fiction employed by Lenny, and Eunice’s email-like online correspondence with a messaging-based account called “GlobalTeens”, which alternate the chapters. What makes this pure science fiction is the world Lenny and Eunice are living in. Everyone exists to rank and rate everyone else using their version of the iPhone or smartphone known as “apperatii”. Everything in culture is reliant on retail and media, and of course, sex. Everything is about image and superficiality perceptions. It is the logical conclusion of the theory of mind, where every thought and action is governed by how it is perceived by friends and strangers alike.
The US is now spiralling into chaos due to being indebted to China, and is governed by a single bipartisan party (with overtones to 1984’s Big Brother). The economy is collapsing, and there’s rioting and death in the streets. The politicians attempt to eliminate the politically disaffected while encouraging even more consumerism in a misguided attempt to kick-start the economy.
Now, let me address the diary conceit… I’ve never really liked the idea of a diary as fiction, although I understand it is clearly a tool of the author and not meant to represent real life. So, what’s my problem? Well, two things really… The first is the time it should take. These fictional diarists are living lives that are so involved and complex that they think we are interested in their lives, and yet they have time to sit around spending hours writing their diaries. This review is a few hundred words and took about 45 minutes in total (including editing, etc.). Where do these characters get the time to write thousands of words? The second item on the agenda is the recall. I can barely recall conversation topics, especially if I’ve had a glass of wine, yet we’re meant to accept that these people, while living these exciting lives have total event, and worse, conversation, recall. So. I ignore all diary conceits, with the exception of the plot point highlighting the generation gap between Lenny and Eunice (note: I have no problem with the email/messenger idea as that is a. much shorter and b. appears to be lifted verbatim from the email records).
Did I actually like the book? Loved it. Oh, is that not enough?
The version of tomorrow is entirely believable, extrapolating today’s world. China will soon become the biggest economy and dominant global power. Our obsession with image and celebrity will surely lead to disaster. Reliance on gadgets to achieve high social status is already with us. Politicians ignoring the people for their own power is easily demonstrable and the ensuing civil unrest is becoming commonplace.
Lenny and Eunice, along with their friends and family are well drawn characters who react to events and each other in authentic ways. They have well-round and distinctive personalities and struggle with both their relationships and the life events that affect them directly and indirectly. They are not simply set up with a series of barriers to over-come, but are simply doing the best they can as relationships, both grand and insignificant, crumble around them.
However, it is the writing and the imagination which really sell the book for me. It is why the characters and the setting work. Possibly because it is in dairy form, the writing flows and you are easily swept along with Lenny’s life. The satire is biting, especially as we watch loser Lenny’s sexual ratings increase thanks to people’s perception of him when he’s out with Eunice. I also enjoyed the comic touch of the Big Brother style government represented by a friendly otter in a cowboy hat. I am a fan of gadgets and social media, but have an intense dislike of celebrity culture and surface politics, so the tone and story of the novel speaks to me perfectly.
Once I finished I told my friend via Twitter that I loved the book and he DMed me back by saying “Its prescience is proven by the fact that we are discussing it on twitter via our apperatii”. Yes.