M.T. Anderson's Landscape with Invisible Hand is one of the most insightful, funny, and disarming YA novels I've read this year. Set in a near-future dystopian world, seemingly kind aliens--the vuvv--arrive on earth and, for the good of the people, deliver technological advances that rapidly eliminate the need for human workers. Except, of course, where they can service the vuvv.
Adam is a young artist who's family has been severely impacted by the loss of a viable economy and out of desperation he signs on to provide entertainment for the vuvv. As you might guess, things go horribly, and humorously, wrong.
This slim volume is plump with both social satire and the indelible nature of hope even where it seems absurd to have any. If you need something to read on an upcoming plane trip or just want a book to curl up with for an afternoon, Landscape with Invisible Hand is an excellent choice.
As Anderson's return to speculative fiction in this book, we asked him what science fiction novels are favorites or have influenced him as a writer. Below he talks about his top five post-Apocalyptic novels...
Usually, we’re blind to how we live our lives. As we grow into adulthood, we forget how strange our own culture is and how its assumptions are taken for granted. Except for the visionary few, most of us gradually stop asking what could be different. That’s what’s so exciting about science fiction: It can show us possibility again. In my own speculative fiction novels (Feed and now Landscape with Invisible Hand), I was really trying to depict our life now on Earth much more than any vision of the future.
A lot of the science fiction that appeals to me and that has influenced me – post-Apocalyptic and otherwise – is a vehicle for the author to explore human situations by transforming them into something strange, dazzling, and alien. Think, for example, about how Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness led the way in challenging concepts of cisgender stability, or how Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, overtly a grim space opera about the Jesuits trying to convert a race of intelligent sloths, is really much more about the difficulties in cultural understanding, and the role of a putative god in incomprehensible ethical situations.
So here are some of my favorite post-Apocalyptic novels that show us in a mirror, however distorted, the world we already live in.
The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury. The striking images in Bradbury’s novel in vignettes – the shattered, crystalline cities and delicate, masked people of Mars, flitting over the dry canals in their insectoid transports – cannot conceal the fact that the book is not so much about an alien landscape as it is about our own. It is, among other things, a parable about the European invasion of North America, and the production of America as an idea. It is deeply sad and retains its strange power even now, in the 21st century. Stereotypical images of Norman Rockwell Americana – picket fences, village band-stands, white clapboards, and old folks on porches – flicker hauntingly across scenes of alien tech, psionic violence, and the sterile wastelands of worlds gone bad.
The Genocides, Thomas Disch. This bleak, forgotten sci-fi masterpiece – now available again – has a simple premise: What if the Earth was cultivated by a race of aliens for a monocultural crop, a factory farm, reducing us to the status of field-mice quivering between the cornrows? A single species of giant plants has sprung up all over the world, blocking out all other growth, sucking up nutrients, and destroying human civilization. As horrific as this rank growth is, the period of alien threshing and reaping is even worse. A few Midwestern survivors have turned to barbarism to stay alive. The aliens remain faceless and remote; the horror here is the humans themselves.
In Watermelon Sugar, Richard Brautigan. Gonzo sixties experimentalist Richard Brautigan turned the post-apocalyptic genre into something hallucinogenic in this slim, sly novella. A gentle commune called iDEATH (conceived of long before the iPhone – make of that what you will) flourishes by a riverbank after some undescribed disaster. Life is quiet, with the exception of the occasional visitation of genial but homicidal talking tigers, until a moonshine-cooking rebel heads into the Forgotten Works to bring forth tech that will threaten the peace of the whole community.
Engine Summer, John Crowley. Another rich, luminous vision of an America forever changed and unintelligible is John Crowley’s Engine Summer. Sure, there’s adventure – a quest across a green, forested, post-Apocalyptic landscape – but the real pleasure here is Crowley’s deft creation of different local societies and cultures, each with its own fascinating rituals and traits. An earthling from this quiet, dying world is narrating his story to a visitor. And the more we understand about the circumstances of that visit, the sadder the story becomes.
The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin. This novel, the first of a trilogy, focuses not so much on human personalities but on mind-bending and quirky scientific concepts taken to their farthest logical conclusion. Just as many of the books above, though overtly about the future, are actually an investigation of the American past, The Three-Body Problem combines its techno-geekism with fascinating echoes of China’s Cultural Revolution. In the present, a nanomaterials expert starts to see an impossible and inexplicable count-down floating in his field of vision. In the past, we hear the story of Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist from a family torn apart by student uprisings, who finds refuge in a secret Communist government project dedicated to contacting alien life-forms – and who takes the future of the Earth into her own hands. One of the real pleasures of this book is the dazzling unfolding of bizarre scientific speculation. These ideas may look goofy in fifty years, when we know more about nanotechnology, but for the moment, this novel will turn your brain inside out – and gives as much insight into the nature of totalitarianism as it does the solution of the three-body problem in physics.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller. Just as Kurt Vonnegut could only write of his harrowing experiences during the fire-bombing of Dresden in the form of a science fiction novel (Slaughterhouse Five), author Walter Miller refracted his own WWII trauma through the writing of one of the first and most famous post-nuclear fantasies, A Canticle for Leibowitz. Miller, a Catholic, was involved in the Allied bombing of one of Catholicism’s most sacred sites, the ancient monastery of Monte Cassino, founded by St. Benedict a millennium and a half earlier. In response, some twenty years later, Miller wrote this powerful sequence of three novellas in which an order of gormless, curious monks in a blasted, post-atomic wasteland struggle to understand the writings of their great patron saint, a martyred engineer named Isaac Leibowitz. They are, the reader can discern, illuminating with vines and gold leaf what are, in fact, the schematic diagrams for the bomb that destroyed civilization. Unaware, they lead mankind back toward knowledge and self-destruction.
When I first read this novel as a kid, the idea that some huge disaster (in this case, nuclear Armageddon) would be followed by angry anti-scientific mobs destroying all vestiges of technocratic society seemed far-fetched. Now I’m not so sure.
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