15 years ago, M.T. Anderson wrote an award-winning, world-shaking book called Feed. Its bleak, yet achingly realistic view of the future laid the foundation for the modern wave of dystopian literature. Anderson was ahead of his time in more ways than one: Not only did the novel predict our reliance on “feeds” and their reliance on targeted ads, it also anticipated that the human quest to turn ourselves into gods would manifest in computer chips implanted in our brains (what the author calls the “colonization of our minds”).
Now, after a decade and a half, Anderson is back to imagining what might lie ahead for civilization in his new novel, Landscape with Invisible Hand. The book is a quick read, but not a simple one. It’s loaded with allegory, deeply nuanced, and bitterly funny. In Anderson’s world, an alien culture called the vuuv acts as overlords and behave… well, pretty much exactly like the 1% does today. They mock the working class for laziness, when in reality there is no economic mobility to be had; they worship the idea of a free market, without admitting that it holds no freedom for most; and they fetisize the America of the 1950s.
We spoke to Anderson (an occasional contributor to this site) about how he envisions the future, his desire for a return to real American values, and how he sees capitalism failing in a post job world.
You’ve written a new book, Landscape with Invisible Hand, which I deeply enjoyed. It’s almost kind of vignette-ty and it’s about aliens, but did you … Do you feel like the heavy lifting of the writing for you was kind of talking and inventing an alien race, or was it more about the deeper undercurrents of what’s going on in this bleak world you’ve imagined?
Well, I mean to me the big thing was actually what’s going on in this family — a normal suburban family where they’ve lost everything. Both the mother and the father have lost their jobs. The family is falling apart. The father has a midlife crisis as a result of losing that job. They’ve invited another family to live with them to try to make ends meet, and the kid — the main character — has fallen in love with the girl who is from this second family.
It was really the family dynamics that I put more attention toward, in terms of when I was imagining the story. More than the aliens, in some ways. Because I think that’s one of the interesting things about science fiction. Not the cosmic or bizarre elements, but the human elements that have to adapt to something so strange in our lives. Part of that is, I think, how history affects us. You know, we go on thinking that we just are the family that we are. The people that we are, and suddenly there’s a recession. Suddenly our parents lose their jobs. Whatever happens. Some national crisis changes the way that you live, and you suddenly realize that you’re a small part of a very large machine.
Right! This is a very deep dystopia where people who at least felt like they were thriving pre-aliens are now living in absolute squalor. They have nothing; and they’re sick. For me as a writer, who worries that my industries are dying every single day that I wake up… Is it connected? Is the book in some ways connected to the idea of a post-job world? Is it connected to the dying of industry that we saw dominate the last election?
Oh, absolutely. Because I write about what I’m anxious about. I write about what I’m passionate about. Right now, I’m passionate about the idea that I don’t know how our model of making money and living is going to survive the technological change that’s going to be happening in the next 20 or 30 years.
That’s really a big fear of mine: This question of what is society going to look like when blue collar jobs, white collar jobs, all of these things disappear as a result of technological progress. Everyone always thinks, “Oh well, it’s going to be incredible.” Anyhow, and robotics they’re going to make work obsolete. No one will have to work anymore.” But the problem is, we still actually live in a capitalist system.