Book review by Mat Johnson: The Invisible Things

In 2011, I reviewed Mat Johnson’s Pym, a highly entertaining seriocomic novel that revisits—and updates—Edgar Allan Poe’s enigmatic, racially charged fantasy, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. In it, an all-black expedition to Antarctica discovers something seemingly impossible in the ice, which I won’t say more about. Just pick up a copy of this very funny, thought provoking book.

Or better yet, read Johnson’s latest work, Invisible Things, another work of cultural and political satire, but this time framed around a disturbing discovery on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Before we get to that, however, let’s take a close look at the beginning of the novel:

“After months in space conducting an intensive field study of social dynamics aboard the cryoship SS Delany, Nalini Jackson, NASAx Post-Doctorate Fellow of Applied Sociology, DA Sc., came to an uncomfortable conclusion: She didn’t really like people, by and large. It was an embarrassing realization considering her life’s work was to study her.”

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A lot is happening in these sentences, but pause for a moment over the SS Delany, which will later be joined by a second cryoship called the SS Ursula 50. What’s the point of these obvious squats to Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin, two of the most admired science fiction writers of our time? A small act of homage, obviously, but Johnson could also signal that in this future, a person’s race and sexual identity — major concerns of Delany and Le Guin — are no longer focal points. It takes the reader a while to learn that Nalini is black, and even longer to realize that her colleague ne Causwell is both gay and black. These facts play almost no role in the story. What really matters are economic, theological and political systems and how they shape a society.

Even though Science fiction is more likely to be set in the future, it’s always about the present. As Nalini states on the second page of the novel, we need space travel as protection against extinction. “If humans failed to achieve this goal, the only unanswered question would be what combination of consequences for humanity’s collective sins would deal the fatal blow. Climate destruction, nuclear Armageddon, systemic xenophobia, virulent partisanship, pandemics… were all fierce competitors. The range of disasters was overwhelming, but as an academic, Nalini was most struck by humanity’s ability to indulge in the illusion that all is well.”

All of this sounds very much like now. And yet, look again at the two passages quoted: their easy tone, the verve of their prose, their irony are light-years removed from the styles of the serious Le Guin and the experimental Delany. Furthermore, Johnson’s knowledge of science fiction is not limited to these two fashionably recognized authors. Characters or events in his book are reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan and Cat’s Cradle; Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, specifically the story Mars is Heaven!; Robert A. Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” – Dwayne somewhat resembles a cross between Jubal Harshaw and Valentine Michael Smith; various “Twilight Zone” episodes; and even the B-movie classic Forbidden Planet, notable for its unseen Monsters from the Id.

Consequently, given Johnson’s day job as a professor at the University of Oregon, it’s tempting to use the language of literary theory and characterize Invisible Things as a loving, intertextual construct, one that draws on half the tropes of modern SF. However, awareness of echoes and borrowings only enriches an already compelling story. During SS Delany’s flyby of Europa, photo drones capture an unexpected bubble shape on the lunar surface. It can only be a biodome. Close-ups then show that there is a real soccer field inside. “With white lines on the lawn, raised seating, and a parking lot full of cars right behind the field itself.”

It turns out that the residents of “New Roanoke” were all “gathered” from Earth. According to officially sanctioned dogma, every citizen was chosen by God, practically “raptured”. But within this biodomed sky are all the shops, fast-food restaurants, class inequality, and political harassment we see on Earth. Everything is, as Nalini notes, “creepy, sickening the same,” right down to the blonde TV host who looks like she’s sculpted out of wax.

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Most people believe that getting out of the dome is impossible and resign themselves to living there as best they can. Bob Seaford, the ambitious former Delany captain, succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome and quickly embraced the policies of the founders, a conservative, tradition-bound group that over the years “evolved from a moderate democratic force into an all-powerful, toxic force has , nativist party.” For its members, New Roanoke is “the place where the American dream lives on.”

Or is it? Mysterious beings called “Invisible Things” provide the populace with food and supplies, and are believed to orchestrate the regular gathering of new arrivals. Johnson never explains these invisible entities, but they could metaphorically represent any of modern society’s anti-democratic deities, whether tech monopolies, political dark money, or plenty of social media, all seeking to covertly control the world they move in and become so demonic inversions of Adam Smith’s pro-market Invisible Hand. However the In any case, any reference to the existence of “things unseen” is a blasphemy, tending to draw their unwanted, perhaps deadly, attention to you.

Obviously, a reader need only squint a little to see that Johnson regularly points to the Trumpian United States. After all, founding party members “believe in democracy – they just don’t believe that someone who can’t afford to rig an election can win one”.

Overall, however, simply quoting a few passages from “Invisible Things” hardly conveys its bounce and energy, although things do get a bit ponderous in the second half. At this point, a subplot—which I haven’t even hinted at—leads to a major political and cultural crisis on New Roanoke. For a final act of chutzpah, Johnson’s final page suddenly presents a melodramatic image that could easily have graced the cover of a 1940s issue of Astounding or Thrilling Wonder Stories.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

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