A review of a science fiction novel by political writer and MaximumRockNRoll columnist G.A. Matiasz.
Matiasz, G.A., 1% Free. 62 Mile Press, 2016.
G.A. Matiasz has been writing for MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL as “Lefty Hooligan” since the early 1990s and is the last columnist still writing for the magazine who was there before a political shakeup led to purges and departures. Born in 1952, he describes himself as “a late hippy and an early punk.” His columns have always been mainly political, and his trajectory has been from the anarchist tendency to the Left and Libertarian Communist side of things, swinging from cynicism to hopefulness, sometimes in the same column.
1% Free is Matiasz’s second science fiction novel. This is near future, West Coast U.S. cyberpunk style prose, with morally complex protagonists who are more out for themselves than anything else. Given Lefty Hooligan’s healthy cynicism, it’s not a surprise that his characters would be at home in the “Noir” genre. This doesn’t mean they don’t have principles that guide them. It just takes a while for us to see the motivations of the three main characters, whose stories eventually come together as they follow leads involving alien technology and a mysterious serial killer.
In the near future of the 2040s, civilization exists even though apocalyptic upheavals have already fractured it leaving the viability of humanity in question. Global warming has killed millions, but the population still grows. Secessionist wars have broken the U.S. into ethnic states. There is the American Southwest which has combined with parts of Mexico into a nation of “Aztlán.” In the Pacific Northwest of Washington and Oregon, a White Nationalist nation is in the process of forming. There are various “NuCities” officially kept up by the US government, but the further out you go from these places, you see “free cities” and “no man’s lands” that range from hubs of criminal activity and scavenging to communal and squatting arrangements.
The level of technology is one the reader in the present day can relate to, but more omnipresent and powerful, akin to a “Blade Runner” era. Characters interact with their Artificial Intelligence apps and programs as part of their professional and home lives, but also must deal with elaborate security protocols, especially when they don’t want the authorities to know what they’re doing. Surveillance is ubiquitous, but there are hacks that can keep one more anonymous.
Interwoven into the stories are a broad range of political theories, from fascist to full communist, and many variations and mixes between, as embodied in the various city dwellers, punks, thieves, citizens and business people, technological salvagers, sectarian groups, and terrorist cells. There are also “Interstitial Materials” spread throughout the book which are basically primary source materials of the near future. These include news reports and interviews, academic presentations, and encyclopedia entries, among others. These delve deeper into some of the theoretical science (a blend of real and fictional) and political considerations that effect the characters.
The three main characters give us different angles and insights into the near future. Jimmy Hidalgo is hard boiled detective based in San Francisco (which gets the most detailed description of any near future city and is especially a delight if you’ve been there and know some of the neighborhoods). He’s tracking a killer but doesn’t realize the weight of the situation he’s got in to. Becky is a socially isolated salvager of technology living in a high tech fortress on the outskirts of Los Angeles. She relates to the world through a filter of AIs, and her main companion is her ship named Kalinda. Her internal dialogue deals with various past relationships that made her who she is. There is also a dreadlocked NYU dropout named Eric. He has followed a woman he loves to Berkeley, where he deals drugs. Eric has a depth of emotional perception beyond the average human, which is precisely what drags him into the story. These characters' paths do cross.
The general sci-fi readership will enjoy this book, but those with a love of politics and history will likely experience it on a deeper level. After 25 years of writing about the various divides and connections between Marxists and anarchists, electoral and direct action politics, identity and class politics, Matiasz/Hooligan brings a lot to the table. He seems to relish projecting it forward into a possible future in which he considers possible paths the human race could take as a species, but also takes time to observe the every day social interactions there.
Given the raised profile for openly fascist politics with the victory of Donald Trump, and the various Brexit, EU, austerity battles, and fissures in the old political structures globally, combined with current debates surrounding identity politics vs. class-centered, imagining new rounds of civil and ethnic war, the dissolving of states into balkanized regions, does not seem far fetched as much as just depressing. Even one of the White Nationalist characters laments that the “stupid” kind of fascism seems to be emerging as dominant in the Northwestern states as they prepare to make a move toward independence.
Like our current reality, the characters deal with this political and social backdrop via escapism on the one hand, and finding a sense of purpose on the other.
December 29th, 2016