February 2013

Martyn Pedler


Is This The Future?: Tom Kaczynski’s Beta Testing The Apocalypse

On the 1986 album Flaunt It, Sigue Sigue Sputnik constructed a ludicrous sci-fi narrative, costumed themselves to match, and spat lyrics like “Stereo, video, sci-fi sex / Let's go-go-go, let's go / Oh, Saturn dreams, laser beams / 21st century sex machines…” Two years later, the final track on their follow-up Dress For Excess was the oddly mournful "Is This The Future." They’d lost faith in their vision of the 21st century, and it was still more than a decade away.

Beginning with the 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, sci-fi author William Gibson ceased setting his novels in the future and dropped his characters into the present day. The stories barely seemed to change. He said: “I felt that I was trying to describe an unthinkable present and I actually feel that science fiction's best use today is the exploration of contemporary reality rather than any attempt to predict where we are going.” Earlier, in his 1981 short story "The Gernsback Continuum," a man is haunted by visions of a 1930s-era future of gleaming highways and zeppelin skies. A future that never came true.

In "The New," the final story in Tom Kaczynski’s Beta Testing The Apocalypse, the narrator leaves the west after an oil crisis reduces it to “a museum of an abandoned future.” He is an architect tasked with building in the center of a sprawling third world megaslum. He, too, hallucinates modernist architecture, seeing seeds of data embedded in certain structures and extrapolating out their lines, forever and ever, without decay. Is this the future?

I asked myself that question on almost every page of Beta Testing. These collected stories contain humans who suspect they may secretly be Martians; brand experts pitching the next mysterious corporate superpower; actors losing themselves in the roles of Neanderthals for art film experiments; happy couples who find their suburban lives interrupted as “the manicured turf peeled away revealing a small glimpse of the vast ocean of discontent boiling beneath the surface.” All take place in the now, or the nowish, or close enough you can’t tell the difference.

Kaczynski uses only one color for each story -- a dirty orange, a sickly green, a radioactive yellow -- and the neat, straight-out-to-the-audience lines make it feel almost like an instruction manual. He subtly warps those lines to great effect, too. As a new high rise corrupts everything around it, the center panel of a nine-panel elongates slightly and throws the page off-balance. The sound effects of a noisy neighbor warp the ceiling’s shape. A BOOM turns all the lines around it diagonal; HELLO, echoing in a cave, paints the walls. He apparently studied architecture before turning to comic art, and Beta Testing is full of visual hypotheses on how space affects those inside it. There’s even an index in the back: “Suburban, 12, 14. Eden, 77. Enterprise, 59. Isolation, 62.”

The first piece, "100000 Miles," uses a documentarian’s voice to explain the hidden logic of the car, the road, and the city. There are balloons over drivers’ heads, but they only hold the usual mundane thoughts; it’s the narrator left to whisper truths. “The lungs of the city infected by the agents of its creation. The car virus masquerading as panacea. In this city everyone has a terminal condition.” You can see why JG Ballard is cited as an influence on Kaczynski, and kicking off the book with car crashes confirms it.

Beta Testing focuses much more on this narration than dialogue, and it suits the kind of characters seen on the cover: giant lab technicians in Godzilla-sized white coats, examining the city from above. When it’s presented as first person thinking it can seem artificial and overwritten. Kaczynski occasionally seems to mock this same tendency, spraying words like “invent in evolution reverse the genetic credit crunch compound the interest of biodiversity.”

But what else are these bewildered men and women supposed to do but struggle to find appropriate metaphors? If Beta Testing is an instruction manual, it’s not one they can read. Those with jobs don’t know what those jobs entail. Those with apartments notice too late everything’s made of papier-mâché. The book quotes Freud’s axiom that anatomy is destiny -- but DNA is untrustworthy, too. Subjectivities shift. Cities and their inhabitants collapse into one, if you’re lucky, or overwrite your existence altogether if not. Ballard wrote that the triple pillars of science fiction are time, space, and identity. Here it’s impossible to tell where one ends and another begins.

Is this the future? Does it have to be? The curse of the man in Kaczynski’s "10000 Years" is to dream he is a Martian. “I don’t have the right constitution for this world,” he thinks. “I’m on the wrong planet.” But for us, reading his story, his curse is a useful genetic mutation. Science fiction is notoriously unreliable when it comes to predicting Saturn dreams, laser beams, and 21st century sex machines. It’s fantastic, however, at taking our present reality and making it strange again. Beta Testing The Apocalypse makes us Martians to better let us see what’s happening all around us.

Read it and witness the disquieting Gernsback of Now.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia.