No. 12: An Idea for a Novel
January 29, 2014
This is just a little description I wrote for a friend earlier today about one of my ongoing literary projects, a novel tentatively called “The Progressives”. I haven’t actively worked on it much for the last sixth months or so, but I’ve been thinking about going back and finishing it recently. I thought some people might enjoy a little taste of one of my larger scale projects, just for fun really. If it sounds interesting to you, you should leave a comment letting me know, I stopped working on it because I didn’t think there was any audience for it, but that was before I started posting on reddit…
…Anyway, the title I was using was “The Progressives”, or some variation of that, though I’m still not completely satisfied calling it that. Have you read either of Laurence Sterne’s novels, “Tristram Shandy” or “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy”? They’re written in this very singular, very imitable style if you haven’t, you’re probably aware of the basic conceit of “Tristram Shandy” if nothing else I imagine, that it’s this very longwinded guy giving his memoirs, where the humor of the book comes from his inability to ever get to the point or actually tell the story he sets out to. To give you an example, there’s a part where Tristram starts telling the story of how he was accidentally circumcised as a child, but in order to tell that story and have it be properly understood and contextualized by the reader, he has to tell several other stories first, which don’t appear at first glance to be in any way, shape or form related to the story Shandy keeps promising the reader he’ll eventually get around to finally telling. One night, for reasons which he explains in excruciating detail, the chamber pot in his bedroom was left unemptied before he went to bed. In the middle of the night then he gets up to go to the bathroom and finds that he has no other option than to pee out the window, what he doesn’t know however, is that the counter-weights which keep the window open have been removed. To explain why they were removed, he of course has to tell a whole other story about his Uncle Toby’s “Hobby Horse”, his Uncle Toby, you see, liked to stage scale reenactments of famous historical battles using models, and in this particular instance, Toby’s servant, Corporeal Trim, has taken the counterweights and turned them into model cannons. So, well, you get the picture.
Right now, I’ve noticed that speculative “world building” is really popular in contemporary fiction, in science fiction and fantasy literature, you know, stuff like “Harry Potter”, and “Game of Thrones”, and the “Hunger Games”, everything has to be this big, epic, multi-book trilogy or something, and the setting is always this unbelievably intricate, made-up “universe”, with it’s own “history” and culture and what have you. People get so caught up in all the silly mythology, the end up taking these fantasy worlds worlds more seriously than they do the real world, and I started off with the idea just to satirize that by having Tristram Shandy write a science fiction novel, if that makes sense. I then added to this, the conceit of historical “scholarship” used in books like “Don Quixote” and “Tom Jones”. Have you read “Don Quixote”? In “Don Quixote”, the narrator is supposed to be this scholar, that is, he isn’t just making the story up, he’s rather “reassembling” it from various, sometimes conflicting, primary sources. He takes the telling of the story seriously, as a scholar dedicated to the truth, working from an incomplete body of historical documents, and Cervantes uses this in part two, for example, to poke fun of the different attempts other authors made to steal his idea. He published part one in 1605, and part two in 1615, and in the interim other people had published their own “part two”s to “Don Quixote”, so in his own second part, Cervantes has his “scholar” narrator treat those books as historical sources unto themselves, sources whose accuracy or authenticity the narrator calls into question.
What I had in mind then, was a “Future“, in the way that “Tom Jones” was a “History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”, with the narrator of “The Progressives” being a kind of scholar or scientist, who isn’t just making things up or “imagining” a future society arbitrarily, but actually predicting, or “projecting” society as it really will be someday, the joke being that the narrator here has these completely unearned pretensions to genuine science, which he takes overly seriously to the point of it being Shandyian. In “Tristram Shandy”, Shandy stops at certain points in order to explicate his abstract theory of “book writing”, because that’s the kind of blow-hard he is, and he ends up saying all sorts of silly sounding things in the process of trying to explain to the reader why he’s such a genius when it comes to writing books. The narrator of “The Progressives” does the same thing, digressing into these theoretical tangents explaining the “science” behind his method of predicting the future, and it all ends up just being a bunch of thinly veiled Materialistic/Marxist type stuff, written as a parody of modern Neo-Marxist academic jargon type stuff.
That’s the “outer” part of the book, the “inner” part of the book is the actual story the narrator means to relate, his digressions always being necessary “background” and contextualization of all the complexities found within this over-wrought, made-up fantasy future in which the primary story takes place. Ostensibly the “inner” narrative is a very cliched and familiar one, being the common science fiction plotline where you have a robot or computer of some sort or other becoming “self-aware”, and fighting to be recognized by human society as a genuinely conscious being in possession of his own free-will and “soul”. On Kantian grounds I don’t believe such a thing to be possible at all, so the story is this false bildungsroman, where this robot character isn’t conscious at all, and is only being misinterpreted as a conscious entity by the other characters he meets through the course of the narrative. Goethe talks about what he calls “high benevolent irony” as being one the fundamental characteristics of the novel genre, and what he’s referring to, is how the reader occupies a higher, more objective vantage point than the characters do. Like in “Wilhelm Meister”, how the Count in the third book misinterprets seeing Wilhelm dressed up as him as an omen forecasting his own death. The irony rests in how the reader knows more than the characters, in the way that the reader is able to understand how a character is misreading a given situation based on either incomplete information or personal bias of some kind. That’s what I’m aiming for, where to the reader, this robot character is just “flat”, and its actually all the other characters of the book simply misreading and misunderstanding and misinterpreting things that leads to him becoming “conscious”.
It’s here I really take the piss out of Progressivism and Social Justice and things like that. The other characters are all extremely eager for a robot to develop consciousness, and because of their ideological bias, they end up anticipating the end they *hope* to one day see, without ever stopping to think it through and consider the possibility that that end might never come to pass.
The robot character, who I don’t have a name for, is accompanied by a human companion, who I also haven’t been able to come up with a name for. Their relationship dynamic is modelled after the classic one of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, which is also used in “Tom Jones” in the characters of Jones and Partridge, and in “Tristram Shandy” as well, in the characters of Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim. It’s the relationship of master and servant, but I invert it, where I make the robot the “master”, and the human the Panzian “servant”. The story is set up just as a romance in the style of “Gil Blas” or “Tom Jones” or “Don Quixote”, as a satirical misadventure, where these two characters go on a sightseeing “tour” of “Classical Modernity”. The idea being that this all takes place hundreds or perhaps thousands of years from now, when our civilization is to them, just as Roman and Greek civilization is to us, and here I took my inspiration from Goethe’s “Italian Journey”, where the characters are “touring” America a thousand years from now in the same way that people in the 18th century toured Italy. The mega-architecture of the present is just a bunch of historical wreckage, appreciated by tourists as we would appreciate an aqueduct, and there was actually a trailer for some Tom Cruise movie I saw, this one, where just the first 30 seconds or so seemed to perfectly capture what I was imagining.
What I wanted to do though, is have the historical record be fragmentary and corrupted, as in, not everything ultimately created by our culture would end up reaching them, so they would end up having these gaping holes in their understanding, which, consequently, would lead them to misinterpret us in a bunch of humorous ways. One of the test “scenes” I did, just to give you an idea of what I mean, was a discussion the characters had with a sort of “internet archeologist”, who worked to recover tweets and social media status updates, which he treated as these really precious jewels of poetry or wisdom, salvaged from oblivion, as if these completely insipid little tweets were fragmentary lines by Pindar recovered from Egyptian papyrus or something. I had a bunch of ideas of other, similar things I thought would be funny, but I’ve forgotten most of them now, but they were all basically some variation on: what if the only films that were extant from our era, were just a bunch of awful super hero movies. You get the picture I’m sure, it was all stuff just meant to poke fun at pop culture fetishism and the sort of “nerdy” individual who’ll wholeheartedly tell you all about how some terrible comic book he likes is just as good as anything Goethe ever did.
When I say I “inverted” the master/servant dichotomy, what I meant was, in objective terms the human would still be the master and the robot the servant, but to the reader, the human would just be this disgusting Panzian idiot. Have you been following the development of “Social Justice” type stuff over the last few years? Right now there seems to be this subculture of people who just constantly bitch about Feminsim and Social Justice and Progressive Politics, non-stop, and they seem to have wormed their way into everything recently. At the grammies the other day, this white guy I guess won an award for best rap something, instead of some black guy who I guess was supposed to have won instead, and these people are absolutely losing their minds over it. They’re just all so awful though, they’re so unpleasant and snotty and childish and poorly read and ill-informed, I just find the whole “movement” to be completely repulsive on every level. I wanted to have the relationship between the human character and the robot character be like, a case of extreme social media or smartphone addiction, where, in the future, everyone just has a walking, talking copy of wikipedia who follows them around everywhere they go and thinks and remembers things for them, the implication being that people have de-evolved memory essentially. I had no shortage of ideas I wanted to try along this general line of satirizing these people, another one was to have “identity” become something that people changed on a whim, on a day to day basis, like a piece of fashion, I just wanted to make them just brutally Panzian, just gluttonous, vile, oafs, deserving only of mockery…