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|Futures Methods II
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace, Little, Brown & Company, 1996.
This hefty novel (981 pages, plus 96 pages of footnotes) is set an indeterminate number of years in the future, although few would call it science-fiction; it just happens to be set an indeterminate number of years in the future which contributes to its atmosphere of dislocation. It has been described as
Just as the narrative strands intertwine and gradually emerge throughout the novel, so the world in which they occur is filled in a little at a time. In the interests of clarity then, it would be useful to bring together and summarise the main features of the scenario.
It is impossible to pin down in which year the events happen due to the advent of Subsidised Time. At a time which would seem to be in the first few years of the new century, it became possible for companies to sponsor individual years, the first such year being Year of the Whopper and the year in which most of the novel takes place, seven years later, being Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. This separation of the two eras makes it impossible to tell how far in the future the story is set, but there are a number of events which are described as occurring before Subsidised Time which would require a few years to happen, so we can assume much of the action occurs maybe 15 years after the book was published.
What we know of these years is sketchy, and often recounted by unreliable sources (such as, in one case, a puppet show). One major change in the US is the complete destruction and rebirth of televisual entertainment. Thanks to the fickleness of remote-controlled TV viewing and VCRs which can avoid the commercials the four big TV networks begin to suffer from lack of ad revenue while the regional and national cable networks form the American Council of Disseminators of Cable. The ACDC convinces the public that it is their American right to have 500-plus channels to choose from, and they soon begin raking in the advertising revenues which allow them to purchase premier sporting events, sealing their popularity further, and eventually (in 1999) driving the traditional networks off the air. Areas of the country which do not yet have access to cable TV see their crime and suicide rates rise dramatically as previously network TV watching citizens realise they have nothing to do with their time. The moribund broadcast networks combine their resources behind a company created by a video rental mogul and form InterLace TelEntertainment, offering pay-per-view entertainment viewable on TV or computer, via modem, fibre-optic cable or mailable diskettes. This gives viewers even more choice, the ACDC companies decline, InterLace TelEnt expands its infrastructure, and sometime after the advent of the Subsidised Era the government considers nationalising the company. There is something strangely retro about this new entertainment format, and the prevalence of diskettes of TV shows, or one's daily news stories, arriving in the mail seems particularly quaint.
The other major change is political and geographical; it would seem that NATO dismantled itself, deciding there was no point existing without an enemy, and the United States, Canada and Mexico formed the Organisation of North American Nations (ONAN). Following this, sometime just after the introduction of Subsidised Time, it becomes apparent there are horrendous problems with waste in the north-east USA; vast amounts of refuse, much of it dangerous industrial and medical waste, is polluting a sizeable part of the country, but no one knows who is to blame. The waste generated by annular fusion (a technology which has allowed the USA to become energy-independent) only exacerbates the problem, and not wanting to be saddled with vast tracts of uncleanable land the US government comes up with a novel solution: they give the area to Canada as a gift, in return for which they only ask that they be allowed to continue dumping their waste in the area. The area, henceforth known as the Great Concavity/Convexity, is evacuated and surrounded by Lucite walls and checkpoints, and appears to be the spark which ignites the aforementioned paraplegic and other more able-bodied Quebecois terrorists' demands for independence. Annula fusion waste has the effect of making the land super-fertile, to the point that it would get way out of control, but this growth is combated by the contents of the Empire Waste Displacement displacement vehicles -- large trash receptacles which are flung deep into the Great Concavity from the USA at an altitude of more than three miles by block-long catapults.
Aside from these scenario-setting reports there is a particularly interesting and hilarious description of the social effects of the rise and fall of a new technology: video phones. The main problem was the stress caused by callers suddenly having to see each other.
This was compounded when people realised how bad they looked when filmed by the small and cheap cameras with which video phones were equipped. The first solution was an expensive procedure of constructing a three dimensional computer model of the user wearing an earnest expression and looking their best. This was soon replaced by cheaper form-fitting masks designed to look good on camera which seemed like a viable solution, despite mistaken-identity problems with callers accidentally putting on the wrong masks occasionally. Inevitably, people soon began wanting to look even better, and began to have masks made which enhanced their features. This, however, lead to a raising of expectations amongst masked video-phone callers so that many became scared of meeting correspondents in person, sans enhanced masks.
Problems intensified when cameras improved in quality and began framing a wider field of vision. This created a market for full-body 'masks,' two dimensional cut-outs of handsome and attractive bodies suitable for video calls. From this it was a small step to the creation of Transmittable Tableaux, photographs of a whole room which were clipped over the camera lens.
It wasn't long before most people saw no point in the expense of transmitting still photos down video-fibre lines and audio-only phones became popular once again, as "a status-symbol of anti-vanity, such that only callers utterly lacking in self-awareness continued to use videophony and Tableaux."
The setting of Infinite Jest is, in some respects superfluous to the plots, in that much of the story is about people whose lives would be little different were it set in the present day. However, by shifting the tale an unspecified distance into the future, when the world is different enough to be a little unfamiliar, it provides a sense of unease that would otherwise not be present. While the background stories of ONAN and InterLace TelEnt are in some ways divorced from the central action, they do have an affect on the characters' lives to some extent; characters are always aware of their refuse (the waste containers on the streets, the displacement vehicles flying overhead) and the media, both contemporary and pre-InterLace play an important part in their lives. However, we see little of the effects on the rest of the population, with much of the action confined within the boundaries of a tennis academy and a half-way house.
The future developments are often on the boundaries between plausibility and ridiculousness, which is a good position to be in to encourage thinking about the future: too plausible and one tends to simply accept an event as possible without thinking about it; too ridiculous and one may well dismiss it out of hand as too far-fetched to ever happen. Items such as Subsidised Time, the collapse and rebirth of the TV networks and the allocation of a large area solely as a waste dump may seem unlikely, but with plausible intervening steps they seem like thought-provoking possibilities.
1. 'The Panic of Influence,' A.O. Scott, New York Review of Books, 2000-02-10.
2. One effect of Subsidised Time, aside from the decking out of the Statue of Liberty in giant diapers, was a boom in the share prices of companies in the calendar and pre-printed check industries, which is a nice little aside on further effects of these changes, and the kind of thing Wallace is good at.
4. The process of persuading the Canadians to accept this gift is recounted in newspaper headlines, many of which have been fabricated, but succeed in giving the general gist, eg: "CANADIAN P.M. TO [US PRESIDENT] GENTLE: LOOK, WE'RE SWIMMING IN TERRITORY ALREADY, HAVE A LOOK AT AN ATLAS WHY DON'T YOU, WE HAVE WAY MORE TERRITORY THAN WE KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH ALREADY, PLUS I DON'T MEAN TO BE RUDE EITHER BUT WE'RE ESPECIALLY UNKEEN ON ACCEPTING HOPELESSLY BEFOULED TERRITORY FROM YOU GUYS, INTERDEPENDENCE RHETORIC OR NO, THERE'S REALLY JUST NO WAY."
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|Phil Gyford: web | email