EVERYONE IN SILICO
By Jim Munroe
Virtual reality, in one form or another, has become a very popular device in science fiction stories. After all, what writer wouldn’t be fascinated by a technology capable of making an imaginary world come to life? Before computers came along, novels were our virtual reality.
In Jim Munroe’s terrific new novel, Everyone In Silico, virtual reality is an artificial space named Frisco, advertised as “the finest reality that money can buy.” The privileged few have their brains uploaded to a program-perfect alternative universe, while their “meat” bodies remain in a trance-like state in the real world. Your experience of Frisco depends on what package you can afford, with lowly silvers and golds being subject to relentless advertising while platinum members get to surf banner-free. But then people start wondering where the bodies are . . .
The plot shuttles between three loosely connected sets of characters and their quests to get behind the sinister Self Corporation that runs Frisco. Nicky is a young genetic designer and anti-corporate activist, Doug an aging and conflicted coolhunter working for an ad agency, and Eileen a retired super-mercenary looking for her cloned son. They each have convincing physical, emotional, and sexual identities, while the world they inhabit, Vancouver in the year 2036, has a realistic fullness that manages to avoid feeling cluttered with all of its devices.
One character arriving in Frisco reflects on how much of it “was inspired – or perhaps limited – by the gutter genre” of science fiction. The inspiration can be seen in various borrowings, but what is so impressive here is how the limitations found in a lot of science fiction – in particular the way SF novels tend to drift, and their lack of fully rounded characters – are overcome. Everyone In Silico is the gutter genre at its best.
What drives the story is a very contemporary political argument about the evils of big business, globalization, and consumerism, especially as it is directed at children. The future is a profoundly branded place where advertising has evolved into a way of life. Some tension is lost by not giving this evil a face – we never find out who or what is behind Self – but a larger point is gained about its blandness and ubiquity. At the same time, the novel avoids becoming a simple conspiracy yarn by giving us characters who are all complicit, at least to some degree, in their phony new world. Their bogus consumer reality is the world they want. Even the very young – and Munroe has always been good with youth culture – have sold out.
You can’t say Jim Munroe hasn’t put his money where his mouth is when it comes to bashing the corporate beast. An outsider on the Canadian literary scene, he even publishes his work under his own imprint (No Media Kings). Which makes you wonder about another consequence of corporate rule in our culture: Can big publishing produce books as original as this?
Review first published May 11, 2002.