I first read Dystopia Boy as a serialized story at The Subtopian Magazine, founded by the author, Trevor D. Richardson. I was a fan. It was presented as a grungy looking PDF that had the look of a transcript printed off of one of those old IBM computers with the lines and the perforated holes on the side. I’m sure you remember those, unless I’m way older than I think. It caught my attention, made me smile, and, more importantly, made me realize exactly what sort of story I was in for. In that simple design choice, I already could see evidence of what his book became: an adventure story about the grungy, the poor, the punk rock, rising up through technology to stimy the powerful and bump them back to the days of DOS.
Since that time, it has been reworked, vastly improved, and published by Montag Press Collective out of California, a small press that takes its namesake from Guy Montag of Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. Their slogan, “Books Worth Burning,” calls to memory quotes like “It was a pleasure to burn,” or “Those who don’t build must burn.” I knew right away that Trevor had found a perfect home for his incendiary novel.
So what about this book? Where to begin? When I got my copy, sent my way and personalized by the writer himself, my first thought was, “This guy really wants to be Phillip K. Dick.”
And who wouldn’t? What I mean to say is, you look at the cover, this shadowy figure in green light, surrounded by monitors and graphics, and it’s impossible to not make that connection to A Scanner Darkly. This is not criticism, one more book like that could only benefit the rest of us, but the similarities do not end there. The reason Dick’s novel was such a success was it combined his own past, his own personal relationships, bad experiences, drug stories, and heartache and threaded them all together in this overarching world of paranoia and intrigue. Richardson’s novel does exactly that same thing. You get a sense from the characters that these are people he has known, these are things that he has done or felt in some form or other, and this is him showing you things he thinks are cool or scary. Like Dick, the book is a tapestry of the author’s life, woven together by a vision of his country as it is slowly corroded by corporate corruption, religious power grabbing, and an overeager reliance on technology.
It is literary-caliber science fiction at its finest, which is, for some, a contradiction in terms, as science fiction is traditionally pigeon-holed as mere “genre” fiction. It is a story of layers, amplifying each other at times, masking one another occasionally, and fleshing out a gray vision of the future. I say “gray” because Richardson makes the intriguing choice of setting his story in a near future where things are only just beginning to get bad. Things aren’t black dark, not yet, but you can tell they will be soon. There is a vibe of Stalinist Russia or Orwell’s Big Brother, but it is still out of focus, still looming behind some veil, shown in glimpses throughout the novel’s many levels.
The initial layer of the story begins with an inter-office memo from a supervisor to the director of a covert intelligence agency, The Watchers, hidden within the government – possibly within FEMA if you follow the clues. It sets the stage, making reference to plugging leaks within the organization, covering up information, and putting a digital record into a transcribed hard copy for reasons we have yet to learn about.
At this point, I’m basically all-in. It’s page one, but you find yourself thinking, why would anyone need a paper copy in the digital age? What does it mean when he says, “The strange events of the past few days”? Then you start to put a few pieces together. The book has a subtitle of “The Unauthorized Files” and its introduction shows you a memo that talks about a transcript. This book is that transcript. I think it was Chuck Palahniuk who said he liked books that use non-fiction forms, that is, they give you a reason for this narrative to exist on the page. If you put the clues together, you realize that this is exactly what Trevor Richardson has done. Then, having barely picked up the book, you begin to realize that this is the sort of ride you’re in for: the writer isn’t going to deliver all the answers to you on a platter, he’s going to drop clues like breadcrumbs for you to follow to his grander vision of what this future is really all about. Perhaps this is his greatest success, finding casual ways to present information rather than explaining it all to you at the beginning because, in the real world, some things are just a part of history and so common that people don’t readily explain them to each other, so why would the narrator explain them to you? Then you move on and, perhaps most of all, your interest is peaked with the last line of the first short chapter, “Even us Watchers can be watched now.”
As the story unfolds, we get the second layer of the story. Agent Emmett Anders, the novel’s narrator, an aging Watcher, skilled at his job and nick-named “The Shrink” for his ability to get into the mind of his subjects, is just beginning his day. He works at the Watcher compound in a high-tech cubicle, scanning through the files of a vast network of hidden cameras, recorded audio, internet searches, phone records – the works. When a red flag pops up it is his responsibility to study every facet of the subject’s life and, in this vision of America, every facet of all our lives are somewhere on record. Cameras are in our television sets, our computers, our gaming systems, our phones, and they’re all connected to the Watchers. At first, I was thinking that “watchers” seemed like a bit of a lazy moniker for these characters. Then I learned about how their job actually works. The Watchers are implanted with a series of microchips connected to their eyes and the memory centers of their brains which enables them to visually receive massive amounts of information at high-speeds. That information is then wirelessly uploaded to a central computer for future study or analysis or further action from other departments. They literally watch a life on fast-forward, subconsciously processing all the information, and only stop to watch some footage in real time when they sense it is something important.
A new Watcher, Gardner, shows up for his first day on the job and learns some of the details of “The Thought Chip,” like how a computer can learn to red flag certain keywords or phrases but could never understand the emotional stuff or the warning signs of terrorist activity before a crime is committed. To this, Gardner rathre humorously remarks, “So you guys finally found the job a computer couldn’t do and decided to turn a human into a computer instead?”
This element of the story becomes a central theme, and for good reason. As speculative fiction writers are wont to do, Richardson is predicting a day when we develop to the point where our devices are installed directly into our bodies. In future books, if there are future books, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the Thought Chip being sold in the private sector like an iPhone, and to just as much hype.
A lot of the story happens right there in that cubicle or in the surrounding rooms as Anders goes about the hardest day of his career. But what makes it the hardest day of his career? Layer three, Joseph Blake, alias Joe Vagrant.
That morning, when Anders sits down to his computer, there is a face in the monitor that actually seems to be staring back at him. The face, Joe, says, “I know you’re out there. I know you’re listening.” After a brief rant, Joe blinks and the systems at Watcher Headquarters go haywire. The lights go out, computers shut down, and the Watchers lose all connection to the outside world. Anders runs to his boss to tell him that all of the craziness just happened when he was confronted by a new subject, Joe.
The Watchers, bringing up only basic systems, are essentially limping back to full power when Anders is told to pour over the record of Joe Vagrant. Even without a connection to the internet or any new data, they are able to get into the files stored on their own central server, so Anders gets to work while all the other Watchers attempt to recover from Joe’s apparent viral attack.
All of this goes down within the first ten pages and from here we finally get into the real meat of the story, through the eyes of a government lackey analyzing the life of an anarchist hacker, we see Joe grow from a young, abused son of a religiously devout single mother, to a runaway teenager earning his living as a folk-punk musician with his best friend, Lee, and eventually into the symbolic leader of a hacker rebellion against a morally bankrupt leadership.
Dystopia Boy goes a lot of places. Agent Anders’ Thought Chip, in a decision made under duress, is used to download all of Joe’s files at once, a procedure typically restricted under normal Watcher safety protocols, but necessary as the records appear to be at risk of vanishing forever. In that moment, a bizarre side effect of the transference takes Anders into a kind of dream state where he lives the life of Joe in the first person. In time, he comes out of it, but is haunted by a kind of echo of Joe who jumps between stalking Anders at his work station, or taking him through more visions of Joe’s life like the Ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol. Things get pretty cerebral, and often really hilarious, as Joe himself has become a pretty wacky character, believing that he is an alien abduction survivor, that the government is out to get him and in the service of extraterrestrials, and with habits like obsessive pop culture references or excessive psychedelic drug use, this Phantom Joe has a way of becoming the comic relief to his own depressing life story.
Another element of the story is something called “The Hack War” that has become a political talking point throughout the course of Joe’s life. Much like the war on terror in the early part of the 21st Century, “techno terrorists” are branded as a threat against the economy and are often blamed for fiscal problems and other issues. When Joe uncovers evidence to suggest the Hack War was staged for political profit, events take him to an underground lair, a kind of discount knock-off of the underground compound the Watchers use for their surveillance work, where he and three other wannabe hacker rebels decide to start the war for real. While hiding out from what they believe to be an alien incursion following the spontaneous implosion of a government building, running from the law, the aliens, and who knows what other imagined bogeymen, the group begins their work, a kind of digital resistance movement leading toward all out civil war. It is at this point in the story, *SPOILERS* for fans of Word Riot, that one chapter becomes a modified version of Trevor’s first short story, “Safety Factory,” originally published by Word Riot in 2005. You could miss it if you didn’t know to look for it, but it’s there as a subtle homage to the publication that got the author his start and it becomes just one more little bread crumb the writer has left behind.
To say any more would cross the line into “spoilers” and I don’t think Trevor would appreciate that too much. Dystopia Boy deals with current issues like corporate powers interfering in American democracy, the plight of the working class, religious zealotry affecting legislation, surveillance states, and the decline of personal privacy or freedom with such tact and tenacity that you barely even notice how intensely its making you think. All those layers of drug culture and the influences of Hunter S. Thompson, Orwell, Huxley, Dick, or punk rock, the humor, the wit, the love story and loyal friendships, the pop culture references to Star Trek or Terminator, they all heap up to elevate the story above its own heavy-handed themes. By the end, it leaves you wanting more and hilariously wraps up with a graphic reminiscent of Back to the Future that reads, “To Be Continued.”
About the reviewer:
David Renton is a regular writer at The Subtopian Magazine and the author of an article series “Culture of Hate.” He considers himself a “lapsed atheist,” which is his tongue-in-cheek way of saying that labels like “atheist” aren’t much better than labels like “Christian” or “Republican.” His work comes from a similar tongue-in-cheek gravitas and he uses his pen to take on corruption in politics and religion. David likes Star Trek and Neil DeGrasse Tyson more than you.