Friday, October 12, 2012

Blueprints of the Afterlife, by Ryan Boudinot

The Bionet is a biological analogue to the Internet.  A small implanted chip in your body tracks every aspect of your biological existence, interfaces with a central computer in the cloud, administers medication, adjusts hormonal levels, monitors blood pressure, cures diseases, corrects injuries, and so on to ensure that you lead a long and healthy existence.  Several characters in the novel have lived past 150 years and lead active lives.  But there are dark potentials to the Bionet—the possibility that hackers can gain access to your body and take it over, or use it to take over someone else, so that you’re no longer your own person.  It’s like drug addiction, except much worse, because you lose control of yourself without even knowing it.  Hackers in this novel who take over other people’s bodies are called DJs.

The Bionet is part of the nightmarish, post-apocalyptic world drawn by Ryan Boudinot in his novel Blueprints of the Afterlife (Grove Press, 2012).  Boudinot certainly holds one’s interest.  Moving from one character and time period to another, he changes his narrative style completely and often.  I was on the point of exasperation with the ne’er-do-well world champion dishwasher Woo-Jin Kan whose story opens the novel, and whose mind is as addled as the worst of Pynchon’s characters, when suddenly we switch in the next chapter to a young woman who never feels quite comfortable in her own body and wonders if she might be someone else.  Then there is Al Skinner, the veteran of the era of FUS, who discovers that his daughter has cloned his dead son.  Don’t forget the video game, in which Bionet developer Luke Piper has to jump up and touch a gold star to garner points, or his battles with hordes of zombies, or his being trailed by a Big Giant Head in the sky—a head that dies and begins to decompose.

The apocalypse referred to by the characters who survived it, or who were born afterwards, is the FUS, Fucked Up Shit, a time so horrific that we are told many survivors have purged the memories from their brains.  (It’s possible, in this novel, for an individual to save personal memories to a memory chip either to make room for new ones or to get rid of unpleasant ones—there are opportunities for corruption in the use of this technology as well).

Blueprints is in part a detective novel, though it’s difficult to figure out exactly who the detective is, or what the crime or question is that he or she is trying to figure out.  Boudinot offers his observations about developments and trends of the present-day world by drawing them out to their logical or illogical extremes in the future.  Technology, the Internet, capitalism, global warming and environmental pollution, human longevity—all of these come under scrutiny.

It’s not even clear what the FUS really was.  It’s clear that society collapsed, people ran amok and treated one another horribly, using extreme weapons and depraved forms of human behavior to inflict the worst imaginable horrors—for the most part in this novel we totter on the margins of these excesses, exposed more to their consequences than to the events themselves.  According to one account (I’m still not sure whether this is offered as the truth or as some wild prevarication) a glacier becomes sentient and instead of melting moves down from the Arctic towards large cities, systematically destroying them, driving society into complete collapse, until authorities in Los Angeles manage to melt it.  Yet in an interview with Luke Piper, it’s suggested that the FUS was only a metaphorical way of talking about the present.

I highly admire the imaginativeness of this novel.  Its intricate explanations for things that did or did not happen are sometimes astounding in their complexity.  Several characters morph into other characters, or discover that they’re not who they believe they are, or find that their memories of the past are entirely fabricated.  Nothing is as it seems.  In fact, seem, in the Wallace Stevens sense of the word, is the operative verb throughout this entertaining, funny, sometimes exasperating book.

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