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.
We assume that someone’s going to be kind of benevolent enough to say, “Oh, it’s a post job world, so here’s some post job money.” When what the book assumes is you’re not needed and there is nothing for it.
I think that you’ll be on board with this as a fellow traveler, as someone who’s traveled much more widely even than me: I would hear these kind of like Libertarian,or right wing, talking points in the early 2000s about how wonderful would it be if we had a small government that could not fund things. Therefore, people had to stand up on their own, because that’s what the free market demands.
I have been to a bunch of developing countries, and they are the Republican paradise, as it were: Governments that are small and crippled. Which cannot provide for their own citizens and are therefore are run by a few very powerful individuals who have huge accumulated resources. I don’t want this country to become part of that. I don’t want it to become a jobless wasteland where we have the rules of capitalism still in place, but none of the opportunities of capitalism in place.
Maybe my worldview is an ounce too bleak, but you have to feel that’s kind of where we’re headed. I mean most of the rhetoric from the aliens in your book sounded like political rhetoric that we hear in 2017 all the time. Which is that essentially that anyone who is not thriving is just not working hard enough.
That occurred to me, I think, because I’ve actually been hearing that all of my… even before my adult life. I first came into consciousness kind of in the Reagan-era, and so it stretches back to then. It’s been going on since then. That line. I do think that that’s the way that those who do have power, or who have wealth, comfort themselves by the idea that somehow they “deserve” this. And therefore other people who don’t have what they need don’t deserve it.
That is a bullshit idea. As you look at the hours worked, and the labor put in, by a lot of people who are working several jobs to try to make ends meet. These are not fucking lazy people. What’s happening instead is that we deemed certain industries as having a different financial effect than others, and the peculiarity of the fact that we’ve chosen the financial industry as being the final repository of our income. I don’t just mean that in sense of we literally deposit our income there, but I actually mean that because of tax structures and other things like that. They have opportunities in that industry that no one else has, and they get rewards like no one else gets. That is really problematic. It’s not about a free market either. That’s the thing that I think is so striking. People assume that capitalism and the free market go together, and yet in some ways capitalism is at odds with the free market.
When Adam Smith talks about the invisible hand he says that a free market will somehow take self interest, and turn self interest into a public good. But there’s no reason necessarily that that is true. You know? That’s what we have finally realized. In fact, he himself modulated that idea in all kinds of ways.
And as the book reveals, we’ve gotten to this place where we value certain industries so highly, and other industries so little that the economic dividing lines are just happening so fast. Especially with the money that flows out of these systems now, and sticks in the finance sector. These were meant to be closed loop systems — where people make money, spend money, return it to the system, but now that it all goes out to dividends and stockholders…
Unilever can only get people to buy so much deodorant. If they want to show growth, they have to fire 70,000 people every year. Then you say to yourself, “Oh, Unilever must be struggling. The deodorant business is bad.” But it’s not. People are buying just as much deodorant, but they have to give dividends to their stockholders, so they fire people. And they put it on millennials, and say “Sorry guys, you need to work 10 hours a day, because there’s someone else who will do it if you don’t.”
Then the division between the top earners and the rest becomes greater and greater, because in fact to those who have so much, more shall be given. Once you have that leverage, you can move even more quickly into the stratosphere away from the rest of the population. You forget how the rest of the population lives. Think about all of those Republican senators who are fighting against health care for 30 million people. Without a recognition that this is something that is important to people. You know?
This is another instance where people talk about a free market, and wanting a free market, but it is not a free market. And to some extent it can never be a free market. Markets are always structured in a particular way. In this instance, the market is structured and slanted towards the people who already have these vast incomes. We should not believe that merely by removing consumer protections we are somehow creating freedom. No. We’re just slanting things in a different direction.
Looking at the book, it feels like your aliens are essentially just the extreme version of this. When you project into the future, could you see some of these scenarios playing out kind of with or without the aliens?
Oh, of course. Keep in mind that the book is a novel, so there’s a lot going on that’s not supposed to be symbolic or anything. It’s just sort of a story, but I do think that a lot of these economic realities are what we’re going to deal with. I think in particular — even in previous talks with you for UPROXX — I’ve mentioned this idea that I think one of the things that could easily happen is the extension of human capabilities through built in technology. I’m talking about stuff like a chip in the head, or whatever. We could strangely create a situation where once again, like in the earliest phases of human evolution, there are in a cense two viable humanoids on the planet at the same time.
We’re going to say for example, that there were both homo sapiens and neanderthals living in Europe in the same period. You know what I mean? In a sense, I feel like that is what is in our future, and yet at the same time here’s an instance where evolution is going to be enacted through social class. That is to say that the wealthy will be in a sense a godlike creation, able to do things in their heads that the rest of us need externalized devises to do. Those with the feed and those without; divided by income.
I am thrilled by my conversations with you… but they depress the fuck out of me.
Frankly, this is one of the reasons I don’t have children. I feel like I don’t want to have them confront a world that I am so profoundly worried about.
Do you feel like it’s hard to extract anything from the recent election? The fear that you and I … and the kind of dread that you and I have about where the future is going.
I would definitely say that I say that I think the anxiety that the right and the left are feeling in many ways are connected anxieties. It’s just that the mythology we create about why we’re anxious is very different. I think that racism plays a very fundamental role in that too. I do feel like especially back in the Tea Party days. I remember thinking the problem was that my opposition to the Tea Party, and everything it stands for, is that in some ways in that movement I was in agreement with some of their panic about a country that appears to be ruled as an oligarchy.
Yet at the same time, obviously, I disagree entirely about a lot of the specifics.
I do think it’s important to sort of the oligarchy idea. A Princeton study was done, now I think in 2014, that basically looked at 20 years or so of legislative decisions made by the federal government. What they did was, they said “What was the public position on this? What was the position of the one percent? And how do legislative outcomes track to what the majority of the population think that they want out of the government?”
The answer was it doesn’t track at all. It was almost flat. That is to say if you disliked something — if the general public liked or disliked something — it was irrelevant to legislative outcome. It tracks very closely for the desires of the one percent. Whatever they say that they want, that literally did in one way or another determine the legislative outcomes for the last couple of decades. The point of this, the very shocking point of this statistical survey was that from a statistical, scientific point of view, this is not a representative democracy in many ways. It is an oligarchy. We are being ruled by a set of people who do not understand our concerns, and who knowingly or unknowingly ignore those concerns.
I think that even, for example, when I thought of in the novel the wealthy living in these condo units floating in the sky. I wasn’t thinking in a symbolic sense. I was just thinking well if you were super rich and you had alien technology, what would you do? You’d obviously live floating in the sky.
But of course, it wasn’t long before I was writing along in the book that I realized, “Oh, but in a sense isn’t that they way it already is?” Most of us are down here on the ground, and the very few are floating up there in the clouds. Almost untouchable and invisible to the rest of us. You know? I think of like Chris Rock said, “If Americans knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets.” To some extent I think that’s true. I think we don’t realize how profound this gulf is, and especially now that individuals in the government seems to be intent on taking away things like our health care, and other elements of the safety net that people absolutely depend on. It’s starting to become much more sinister.
And not even hiding that sinister edge.
It’s not just like, “Oh, here I want to send my kid to college, and this person’s buying shoes that cost as much as a year in college.” Now it’s a little bit more like, “I’m dying of cancer, and this person is actively voting to take away my health care while they themselves are covered under a national plan by my tax dollars.” You know? That kind of thing.
Yes! And of course that’s clear in the text. The book is a great introduction to allegory, because no one can miss the allegory. It’s really right there.
But I should also say that I really didn’t think of some of that allegory when I started it. I wrote the first draft like… what? Like four years ago, or something, as a short story. At the time I actually, literally thought to myself, “Well, I’m writing this whole thing about health care.” Which is projecting my anxieties about health care.
You know I’m someone with a preexisting mission to be self employed, so I do think about it. But I thought, “By the time this actually gets published… Right now, you know, that the ACA is being installed, and everyone’s going to have health care in four years whenever this is done. And it’s going to seem quaint and stupid that I’m actually worried about this.”
Actually, I find it very, very weird and shocking that if anything we’ve gone backwards in that regard. In this thing that I thought was going to be a science fiction element, instead has become almost realer. Not almost. It’s become realer than when I wrote the book in a way that I did not anticipate. I did not believe that that was going to be in play anymore.
How does this book differ from Feed — I don’t mean the characters, but its view of the future?
One thing that I think is important to say about the difference between this book and Feed is… If Feed was about the experience of being sold to all the time, this book is about the experience of always having to sell yourself, and that I think is actually the new reality of America right now.
I feel like that is something that millennials are encountering in every aspect of their lives right now. As they look for jobs, it’s like that. As they look for love, it’s like that. You know? As they look for friends. The voyeurism and commercialism of our online community had created a sense of a constant market. Everything is a market. The way that you understand your own personality is based on whether it is marketable or not. That’s a strange position to be in. It’s a very external way of understanding yourself.
We have a whole generation — it would be a pretty easy argument that for UPROXX readers in that generation — that their seminal book of anti-capitalist rebellion was written by you. That’s Feed. Now they have grown up, and they’re adults. You have written another kind of dystopian book that has a bleak and yet painfully realistic-feeling worldview. How have your thoughts about the future of humanity shifted in the 15 years between the two novels?
I really do think that a lot of the technologies about in Feed, and thought of, in fact in a very symbolic way, we’re moving towards them much more quickly than I had anticipated. I think that that surprised me. I think it has … I guess it’s also surprised me that a kind of aggressive, violent, anti-intellectualism has become so much a part of the culture. It is in fact anti-science. Yet at the same time supported by the most intricate, complex, scientific systems ever devised on this planet.
You know? The idea of being a flat earther, who disseminates your ideas on the internet, is just like freaking bizarre! I remember as a kid reading A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is a post apocalyptic, post nuclear novel by Walter Miller. A really wonderful post apocalyptic novel. Iconic. The point is, in that book they talk about how after the nuclear holocaust happens, and mankind is decimated there has been this kind of almost medieval uprising of people who are destroying any signs of the previous technology. I remember as a kid thinking, “Well, that’s incredibly stupid”, because instead people would actually cling to that technology in the shreds of civilization. That’s all that can protect you. “That’s how it would go,” I thought — but now I’m starting to realize, “No, wait a second.” I don’t think that I understood how deeply this kind of anti-intellectual thread can run through us as a species. That we really … There are moments that we become profoundly destructive, and almost take pride in the irrational destruction.
Certainly that undercurrent is evident in both books. This undercurrent of people actually kind of almost willfully getting dumber. In a world that is actually setting us up to be very smart.
I think that there’s a difference between say the world of Feed, this hyper consumerist society where the point is: We’re dumb in the sense that we use the technology, and count on it, and refer to it, but we don’t really know how it works or care.
What’s weird about the new kink I think is to actually profess to be… in a way… anti-science, anti-progress while still taking the technology for granted. That is the weird, irrational, new kink. That’s something that was not as evident back then as it is now. To actually profess to hate the elements of progress, and at the same time once again there is an element of … I can understand an element of that fear, because when I look at something like for example, there’s a brain computer interface. You know? I start to feel like, “Do I really want to live through that phase of human development? Do I really want to live through that kind of colonization of our minds?” At that point, I start to then feel protective of my own simian idiocy.
In there… I mean, I feel weird asking, but are there hopeful scenarios?
I think that there are possible hopeful scenarios. It’s almost kind of useful actually to envision the positive, because then you could actually identify what it is that you care about. Then you can identify you need move towards, and I think that some of the American ideals are really important to remember. The idea of supporting each other in the community. The idea of crossing racial, and ethnic boundaries enough so that we can at least move forward, so that we can give everyone a fair break under the law. You know? That kind of thing, dude, those are American ideals.
The real American ideals right now are being tarnished in favor of this mythology of some 1950’s America that is very race based. The resources that we could actually tap if we changed the way that we did things, and we adopted certain technological solutions. It would be incredible. All of that is there, and the question is are we going to actually grasp it and move towards that together to try to recreate what’s best in American ideals. Or are we going to continue to believe in this mythology of division, and of anger.
Last time we talked, I made you give me … Let’s say there’s a 22 year old who reads UPROXX. Who reads your book, and says, “Yeah. I don’t want it to end up like this.” Whether it’s real aliens, or whether I’m replacing the word aliens with one percenters, which felt like something you could do throughout most of the book. What would you give them to chase in order to give you back some optimism? What could you see people chasing that would give you back optimism? What would you encourage young people to chase in order to restore optimism to the planet, or give birth to a new generation of us having hope as a culture?
I think that one of the things that we really could do is talk about our aspirations as a culture, and also think even wider. As a civilization. To say look … When we look back into the past, we see how each successive civilization gave us a different set of things, and it’s remembered for a different set of things. What is it that we want to have as our legacy? And then how can we start talking about that so much that those become the buzzwords that are floating around. That “make America great again” with it’s quiet, corrosive, divisive quality is replaced by instead of the talk of what it is that we envision for an incredible future that we all actually desire.
I think that changing the rhetorical structure of how everyone thinks about America’s future is actually a really important thing, and is it actually done a lot through things like speaking out loud, and writing about things, and talking to people. It is something that by talking in larger and larger circles of people you actually can spread those ideas. Spread catchphrases. Spread ways that we can understand ourselves differently, so that the rhetoric of small government, and not just small government. That the rhetoric of parsimonious, cruel government. The rhetoric of competition, destruction, sociopathy no longer has so much of a sway over the public. That I think can really change the way that we legislate, and it can start to change things like very specific legislative things that I feel that we need.
For example, changing the Citizens United decision. Changing the way that corporations are legally seen as people, which is a very problematic element of our whole legal system right at the moment, and how it allows interference in democracy. That kind of thing I think. Starting to understand human aspirations, human hope, human joy.
Those are the reasons that modern life is actually worth living. We have gotten ourselves into a situation where we actually seem to believe, even liberals, to justify our lives we need to talk about our profitability. In fact, at the end of the day even if you look at studies of happiness, are arrayed by social class. Once you get a couple of what is it … 10,000 or 20,000 dollars above the median wage in the country, there is no tracking whatsoever for happiness and amount of money. You know what I mean? It’s a study that does not compute in terms of self reported levels of happiness. Once we start to see that our goals and aspirations are actually important, and start to change the way we talk about gains, the way we talk about success of a culture and a civilization. Then I think we will be on track to try to produce something that is in fact like that old American dream of the shining city on the hill.