Saturday, June 20, 2009

American Soma

A dystopian literature-related internet quiz? How could I not?

(Note: Savannah Scholl Guz and I were on a panel together last month at the Pilcrow Lit Fest and I'm chomping at the bit to read this book.)

SSG: In American Soma, the title story imagines the mass drugging of the nation through popular foods, like pizza, coffee, and beer to assure the results of a presidential election. If you were in power and wanted to maintain it, what methods would you use?

MB: Two words: Video games. For the past four or five years, video games have outsold the box-office in annual sales. Everyone is playing video games, or near enough to everyone that you could reach a huge chunk of the population by exploiting things like content and product placement. True story; when Obama was running for election, I started seeing people in XBOX 360 Live games using "Barack" and "Obama" as their usernames. Video game commentary and political importance isn't here yet because we still think of it as a form of entertainment for children and juvenile men, but the reality is it's bigger than almost any other entertainment form and it's very cheap in comparison. Cheap=democratic, but cheap also virtually guarantees a widespread saturation of data. If someone could mold that...

SSG: In American Soma, there is a story called “The Fountain,” in which the dirty water of a dive bar toilet can make people younger. Considering injections of botulism toxins and painful chemical peels are now the accepted way to rejuvenate your appearance, would you reach into a scummy toilet in order to maintain your youth or regain it? And what's your unlikely fountain of youth?
MB: I have to say I probably would. And speaking as someone who once went on a grueling low-calorie diet and lost 84 pounds, I'm willing to turn my back on a variety of things I categorically love in order to try to shoot for an ideal that I'm not even sure I feel a genuine need to achieve. Why? In an information world, attractiveness is even more important than capital.

My idea of the fountain of youth? Stay the hell away from genetically-engineered food. If you are eating anything with hydrogenated corn oil or corn syrup in it (see also: everything) you are fucking up your body. The Amish eat dairy like it's going out of style, butter, cheese, milk, none of it pasteurized and none of it "reduced fat" and they remain some of the healthiest people you will ever see. The reason: they are outdoors every day and move around more than we do, and virtually none of their food chain is processed.

Imagine a world in which you could happily have all the butter/ice-cream/mashed potatoes/pasta/bread/etc, you could eat, and it would not make you obese. This exists in places where they don't put chemicals and unnatural additives in our food. Don't believe me? Go to Arcola, Il and have lunch at an Amish person's house. I've never seen so many carbs and fats on the same plate. It was too much food even for me, who has been known to pack away an entire pizza in a sitting. But every bit of it was organic and none of it from improperly-raised or treated livestock or genetically-engineered grains.

If you think you know some healthy, attractive people. go visit an Amish community. They positively glow with youth, and they have great skin, vibrant hair, strong upright posture, correct body-mass index, etc. And they eat steak and potatoes for BREAKFAST.

SSG: American Soma’s story “Postmodern Colonialism” is a not-so futuristic story that charts conquests achieved through capitalism (and sometimes, war). In host nations, protective compounds are created, in which American white collar employees are stationed and eventually cannot leave. Do you think this still lies in America ’s future? Or are we already there?

MB: It might, but I honestly hope it doesn't. Not because I really have a concept of what this sort of thing really means to the citizens of third world countries. I think it would be presumptuous of me to even prentend that I understand their point of view. I hope this never happens because the America I love is full of good people, and the system that does/might exist where Americans are unwelcome in other countries makes me feel a little heartsick. Entitled we might act, and enfranchised we certainly are, but under it all I know we're not such douchebags as all that. I like to fantasize that nearly any one person from any country who "hates" Americans could come to Chicago, spend a month here seeing what we're really like, and at least partially change their mind. It might be just a fantasy, but that's the America I live in, and the one that I try to protect and nurture.

SSG: American Soma is largely about a variety of personal or communal dystopias and imperfect worlds. By contrast, what three things comprise your idea of a utopia?

1) The abolishment of institutional punishment. I don't think governments should exist to incarcerate or execute people. I think people should be bound by the moral code of their individual communities and made to atone for transgressions in a palpable way. Locking someone up for fifteen years solves nothing. Serious breaches of the law should be punished by things like compulsory labor in charitable causes, compulsory participation in medical trials so we can improve our overall medical technology, compulsory relocation to rural areas or group living environments for community supervision. That sort of thing should exist for the small percentage of crimes that are not directly related to socioeconomic status. Which leads me to my next bullet point...

2) Socialism 2.0. Not communism, socialism. If the last year and a half have taught us anything useful about socioeconomics, it's that our version of capitalism does little or nothing to maintain the meritocracy and democracy that we cling to as its ideals. So we need to ask ourselves: why the death-grip on capitalism? Let it go, America. Much of what we do is already very socialistic in nature, let's toss out the rest of the stupid process and start fresh with a political structure consistent with the last century of human sociopolitical evolution. As we are now, we're still struggling with many of the same problems people in 1909 suffered from. I find that lack of progress telling.

3) Creativity encouraged, derivative entrepreneurialism scorned. There is a reason buzzards have no friends. They survive on eating the remains of other, more noble creatures. I think we as human beings need to start calling buzzards buzzards and focus on a world in which creativity reigns. Ultimately, those who create are the most valuable members of any society anyway. A culture is only as good as its best idea, and right now the people in this country who have ideas are like little mice under the sun waiting for the corporate birds of prey to swoop out of the sky and grab them. We cage people in the bars of expectation, partially because of capitalism, partially because of outmoded cultural taboos that have no real teeth anymore. In a digital world, where virtual experiences are quickly catching up with "real" experiences, why can we not have a world in which the concept of taboo melts away and gives rise to the creativity that the human race needs, and deserves? The concept of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) may be useful here.

Peace can be realized as a sort of comfort barrier to protect Group of People A from Group of People B via means of the digital world. After all, when I log onto Facebook only the people I like are there. Imagine a world where you could move to a community of people guaranteed to accept you for whatever it was you wanted to achieve in the world. In a more virtual world, you might even live in a "community" comprised of only people you get along with. Tired of listening to religious people? Unfriend them for a while until you change your mind or get bored. Abortion not your thing? In a more virtual world, you could demand that people who advocate abortion rights never, or nearly never, cross your path. You can tune out news of them the way you'd tune out a distasteful radio station or that one weirdo friend from college who you don't care to ever speak to again.

In "No Exit" Sartre demonstrated to us that Hell is "other people." If we want to ever reach Utopia, we need to realize that Heaven is also other people. Some other people.

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