Register Saturday | June 15 | 2019

Death to Realism

"Was that Toronto, or Tokyo? No, that was Hollywood."

What is the point of realism? The world is familiar to me; show me something new.

Toronto is beginning to look like the science fiction landscapes of the eighties. At midnight in the rain, Yonge Street at Dundas Square from the inside of a mid-size four-door Saturn looks everything like a shot from the inside of Deckard’s flying cop car in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The monumental Gap ads and oversize neon logos now compete with artificially bright TV screens, all mounted at odd angles on the corners of towering, aging skyscrapers, while at street level twenty-four-hour storefronts serve cheap noodles to the poor. Somewhere behind the thumping rhythm of the wipers you’re pretty sure you just heard a sultry Japanese chick whispering about the new jobs on Mars, in just the same way you want her to say, “Feel my breasts. Please.”

I digress. Was that Toronto, or Tokyo? No, that was Hollywood.

It only proves I’m middle-aged that I remember when Kubrick’s 2001 opened and everyone gasped at the way the future would look. Because, of course, if you forget about the mysticism, it pretty much looks like old hat by now. However, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Without being dazzled by the style of the surface, now you can see how realistic it is. Now it’s like watching an entire NASA shuttle mission in real time on satellite TV.

Boring.

Unless the computer decides to kill you, or the ship blows up. Which would be completely unrelated events, I’m sure. I’m pretty sure.

What would freak out Philip K. Dick more than knowing he’d inadvertently aided Arnold Schwarzenegger in becoming a major American politician? Only that we’re still talking about him. We’re still talking about you, Phil. Even your death won’t stop us. Boo!

When William Gibson wrote Neuromancer in the early eighties, it was clearly science fiction. When Pattern Recognition was released last year, it was obviously realism. What’s cool about Gibson is, he still wears the sneakers. He hasn’t changed. The context has.

Go back and reread Ballard’s Crash and Concrete Island and see if they still seem like the future.

The inference from all this: science fiction is ahead of its time. That’s its job. Those who do it know this, and some of them are famous for it. I know, I know, there’s a legion of hacks out there. It depresses me.

When I was a kid, my father and I watched the moon landing live on television. He’d grown up in Montreal and told me then that when he was a kid they’d all run outdoors when an airplane flew over, to marvel at it. Now here he was sitting with me watching a guy step onto the moon. In real time. He was overwhelmed by the rate of change he’d witnessed with his own eyes. He’d watched the birth of aviation, the death of the gas airship and the rise of the telephone, radio, television, communism. A remarkably twentieth-century list. But he didn’t live to see the Soviet Union fall, or the Internet rise.

By contrast, my son, whose birth we are this week awaiting, will wonder what life was like before we all globalized and converged.

Real life is every bit as full of unbelievable romance as the cheapest pulp novel. What’s nice about the pulp novel is that it never tries to sucker-punch you the way real life does.

On the other hand, all too often the so-called Literary Novel just lulls you to sleep.

Once in a while a really good slap in the face gets published as literary fiction. Just recently Houellebecq’s Elementary Particles was both lauded and derided for this (I’m in the cheering section over here), but does anyone else agree with me that it’s science fiction?

Meanwhile, I’ve been following a story in the media about how an unelected leader of an undemocratic nation is waging an illegal war on an unarmed country. And the population of that undemocratic nation gets mad when the price of the commodity they agreed to kill people for, initially on trumped-up charges and afterward with false justifications, doubles in cost. But now it’s too late. Invisible enemies require first the legalization and then the privatization of complete surveillance. I’m sure you can see where this hackneyed plot is going. Vintage: 1984.

I hate realism. It just seems so false.

Michel Basilières, a novelist and new father based in Toronto, is the author of Black Bird. His column on alternative literature, The Outer Edge, appears monthly.