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Sun, 20 Jun 2004

Ambient

— SjG @ 4:44 pm

Jack Womack, 1987, Grove Press Books.

It seems to me that there is a grand poker game among speculative dystopian writers, dating back to Huxley, Zamyatin, and Orwell, if not even farther, with each player trying to out-play the previous extreme. If this is indeed the case, Burgess pushed out Orwell with the low spade in the hole, only to have the table taken over by a bunch of young, cocky beatniks and science fiction writers: Burroughs, Ellison, Bradbury, and Vonnegut. Then Philip Dick started dominating the game, even while Brin, Atwood, and Walter Miller, Jr played a hand or two. Things changed again when Varley and Gibson anted up. Varley called, Dick folded, then Womack saw Gibson and raised him an apocalypse or two. While there are still hands to be dealt, it seems that Womack is currently the player to beat.
Womack clearly has a debt to a number of the other players. Most often noted is Burgess, as much of Ambient is told in future dialects of English; also noteworthy, perhaps, is Chandler, who taught many of the players the rules of the game in the first place. But Womack brings an amoral ruthlessness and matter-of-fact brutality to his tale that outdoes his predecessors. It’s not that Womack’s dystopia is just a nasty place, it’s that there’s concerted, unrelenting nastiness oozing out of every alleyway, human oriface, and gun barrel. Do we find any sympathetic characters? Not a one. Do we still flinch at the outrages they endure? Yes, we do. Ambient is so over the top that it would be easy to dismiss it as an exercise in exaggeration and sick bravado. But it’s clear that it was written with a sense of (warped, black) humor, which allows us to stay with the story through otherwise untenable situations.
Yeah, there’s nothing like a good dystopian science fiction novel. Always make me want to write a few of my own. Fortunately for you, that desire fades quickly away, and I go play a few rounds of Counterstrike or something.

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