Doubleday Canada, 2006, 257 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-66209-2
It’s a strange new world out there, in these early days of the twenty-first century. Past certitudes seem to have crumbled on themselves, and what’s left is a troubling memetic wasteland where labels don’t apply, no one knows anything and past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Imagine being a futurist during those times, trying to tell people what’s going to happen when it’s almost impossible to figure out what’s happening now. You can recite the events of the past twenty years from the end of the cold war to the invasion of Iraq, but at a time where everyone is still trying to figure out what it means, even finding out what’s going on is a challenge.
In its way, James P. Othmer’s The Futurist is a novel of its time: confused, snarky, torn between narratives, aware of the world but reluctant to engage too deeply with it. It’s almost science-fiction, almost comedy, almost a thriller and almost general literature at the same time. It’s an interesting read, but not a likable one.
As the title suggests, The Futurist is first and foremost a character study. Yates (just as often called “The Futurist” in the prose) is someone who knows what to say to the paying audiences in front of him. He masters the jargon, has learned to limit his vision and enjoys a carefully calculated sociopathy. He’s so good that he’s able to speak in front of dramatically opposed groups and get standing ovations at both places.
But as the novel begins, he dives headfirst into a mid-life crisis; his long-time girlfriend has dumped him for a history teacher, a space tourism crisis threatens to kills people who followed his past recommendations, and a drunken episode leads to an incendiary speech in which he renounces the fundamentals of his own field. But since no good deed ever goes unpunished, he finds himself even more in demand than ever before: the corporate gigs keep piling up, and a shadowy organization that may or may not be acting on behalf of the US government coerces him into acting as an informal spy for a nebulous project. Threats, both vague and specific, keep piling up in his mailbox. At home, his parents are acting strangely, and at work an ex-colleague is none too pleased with his recent actions.
If you’re looking for a strong common thread or a plot-driven genre story, you’re not going to be entirely satisfied: The Futurist is perfectly happy to take place in a smog of disinformation. Yates doesn’t have a clue, and we’re not expected to know more than him in a tight third-person narrative. He does have a curious tendency to find himself in the middle of riots and explosions, but don’t worry: he can always depend on a retired multi-billionaire to help him out. Convenient plotting? Of course.
It all reaches a climax of sorts in someplace that feels a lot like post-invasion Iraq, as Yates confronts a variety of enemies and reaches yet another epiphany. Given the novel’s generally aimless feel, a surprising number of plot threads are wrapped up, although the tentative epilogue reinforces the novel’s lack of certitudes.
Looking for descriptive adjectives to describe this novel, it’s hard to do better than “William Gibsonian”, which is straight out of the novel’s second page: Like Gibson, Othmer is writing fiction inspired by his RSS feed, and uses genre tropes without really committing to them: A subplot about disaster in space could have been torn out of Analog SF magazine, but here remains a distant echo of bad headline news. Othmer is a bit better than Gibson at using guns and explosions to make plot points, but if The Futurist has to be shelved somewhere, it’s going to be next to hip contemporary character studies and not anywhere near thrillers. Like Gibson’s novels since Pattern Recognition, The Futurist hovers as the edge of our certitudes, which makes for an interesting reading experience but not a comfortable one. Much like the world out there, it’s amusing without being funny, action-packed without being entertaining and almost completely impossible to describe with any satisfaction.