There’s a story I’ve had on my mind a lot this week, for reasons Bubblegum and otherwise: Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”
Maybe you’ve read it before, maybe you haven’t; it’s quite short, so if you want to, it won’t take you much time. It’s pretty famous. It’s also nauseatingly sad, so, y’know, have some chocolate or a lazy dog or something on hand to help you get back up afterward.
The parallels to our situation in this country are, I hope, obvious, and that’s not what I want to (…can bear to) write about right now anyway. What I want to write about right now is that beautiful pair of letters to Belt from his mom—including some truly startling flashes of my own life on those pages (don’t worry for me, they weren’t about mental illness or suicide). Or what the hell Fondajane is doing in this book at all, because I’ll tell you, Triple-J’s essay on her is, I think, an effective set piece in a bunch of ways, and there are definitely novels I’d enjoy seeing it in as one star in the constellation—but for now, I’ve got no idea how to answer the question why is she here?, and that’s the kind of burr under my saddle that always keeps me bouncing.
But what I’m going to write about is Triple-J’s other essay.
In the first place, it’s funny. Triple-J is, as Paul notes, an intermittently formal writer. Cued perhaps by Hal Incandenza, I was expecting that these papers of Triple-J’s would be evidence of his genius. I would say I am…unconvinced. There’s an affability to the intellect he shows in them—I might like him!, although then again the kidney stomping weighs the other way—so I don’t think Bubblegum is making fun of him, but I do think we’re supposed to see both standard development-in-progress-type immaturity and a level of critical obliviousness. But in an affectionate way.
We learn quite a lot that we need to know from reading this essay, or at least the two versions of the Graham&Swords manual that it juxtaposes. None of that is what Triple-J is analyzing. His thesis—”that some people will say anything to sell you what they’re trying to sell you, especially if those people are corporations, and it’s shady”—rings of callow disillusionment, that feeling of conviction and righteousness (maybe even superiority) that I imagine we all experience when we’re 14ish and make some of our early critical judgments of the world around us. It’s not out of place for the character or anything, and I wouldn’t even say it’s incorrect, it just has very little to do with the material he’s using. (No, you’re remembering that paper you thought was awesome but your freshman-English TA thought deserved a D because it didn’t make any actual argument.)
Apart from the…what could we call it, data? bread crumbs?…about cures as material objects in the world of the novel, here’s the part that I think is essential. And it’s a little long, but that’s because Triple-J has already intuitively mastered linguistic recursion, so blame him for the size of this box you’re about to see:
There’s no way [people stop buying cures and using them and seeing them as robots] because by the time the “Cures are people! They’re people!” people start getting attention, not only is the whole Cute Economy happening and making everyone in the USA richer, but everyone in the USA and most of the rest of the world has already overloaded a bunch of times and enjoyed doing it, and has learned to want to keep doing it, and, like I said, if it turned out that cures/Botimals weren’t machines made of flesh but real animals or animal-humans or whatever and that it therefore wasn’t okay to do what we all do to them, not only would the economy get messed up, but we’d all hate ourselves and commit suicide because we’d see that we’d been monsters all along. We’re not monsters, though. And that’s how we know cures are robots.
I take Triple-J in good faith: I think his prior here is a naïve and honest certitude that “we’re not monsters.” And from that, it follows that cures must not be alive.
But of course we’re not kids reading this, and Levin’s a sophisticated technician. We can see self-serving rationalization when it begs us to tell it how innocent it is. And this is where I come back to the Le Guin story, especially because we learn here that cures aren’t just bread and circuses, they’re meat and drink. The national economy is built on the disposability of cures. It’s good at least that Triple-J lets us know there are in fact groups that protest their on-a-whim destruction. I wasn’t sure there was anybody but Belt (and at least some of us readers, including me) who had a problem with it. Because we’re not monsters, right?