Let’s play language. (p. 1)
If you’re a literary theory nerd, when a writer opens their story with this line you get a little excited. The words “play” and “language” have a strong association with avant-garde aesthetics and poststructuralism generally, but more specifically they bring to mind the granddaddy of deconstruction: Jacques Derrida, or, as at least one of my PhD advisors refers to him, “the big D.” Derrida’s work introduced into American universities a set of strategies and practices that called into question language itself, and he advocated for a method of deep reading that continues to hold a powerful sway in English programs writ large (all of this is an almost indefensible reduction, but we have cool sci-fi stuff to get to).
Derrida’s writing is notoriously—and intentionally—difficult. So while Rone Shavers’s opening sentence to Silverfish piqued my interest, I was also a little wary: have I stumbled into a book that’s going to break my brain and leave me only more confused? The answer, as with all good literature, is yes, but in a productive way. In other words, Shavers definitely pushes you into the deep end and tells you to swim, but he also tosses in a life jacket and a guide back to shore. Because Silverfish is, behind all of its technical virtuosity and lexical gymnastics, a playful, powerful reading experience, one that will slither its way deep into your consciousness and stay with you. Silverfish is a text about text, about language and meaning, but Shavers proves equally adept at telling a near-future story of the post-postapocalypse, of military strikes and cyborgs and capitalist warfare that not only calls to mind the standard greats of the genre but also hijacks these narrative supports to inject something wholly new and idiosyncratic. This is Shavers’s debut novel, but it reads with the confident, comprehensive grasp of an old pro, one whose promise to “play language” is more than fulfilled.
What if the apocalypse happened and no one noticed? (p. 21)
The story follows two characters, Clayton the machinist and Angel the cyborg death machine. We’re in the near-future and the neoliberal capitalist scourge has only strengthened its hold, penetrating itself into every aspect of people's lives (you know, like now). The name of the game is corporate warfare in service to the almighty Dow, with the State’s military and economic power entangled to an indistinguishable degree. Soldiers are referred to as “‘combat associates,’ because the phrase better reflects their unique contribution to the greater social order” (p. 8). Each associate is assigned a financial planner who helps them determine the most fiscally responsible and productive assignments. Almost every encounter is drenched with marketised, transactional language couched in thinly veiled euphemistic corpo-babble: “I’d recommend,” Clayton’s advisor encourages, “you take two more jumps and then request a lateral move to diversify your rank and portfolio, then cash in all your options at once” (p. 16). It’s basically a dehumanized capitalist hellscape, which will feel eerily familiar to anyone paying attention, and particularly recognizable to those that have served in the military and/or suffered from its indifference.
When one of Clayton’s missions goes awry, his life becomes intertwined with that of Angel, a human-cyborg combat weapon designed to stimulate the economy through a series of coordinated military strikes. Angel and Clayton both undergo a series of ideological upheavals through the introduction of silverfish, “wetworked creatures that consumed electric energy” (p. 92). These are the basic story beats, but to focus on the narrative itself is a disservice to Silverfish, a work that almost entirely eschews conventional storytelling mechanics in favor of an avant-garde, experimental approach to aesthetics and form.
Language, in its perfection, could distort, conceal, dissemble. Language could confuse, and Man, in his infinite lust for something better, desired more. (p. 18)
Silverfish is a science fiction story that evokes several subgenres—cyberpunk, dystopia, military sf, rogue AI—but it fits better alongside avant-garde literature more broadly. Within the genre itself, I’d locate his work alongside postmodern writers like Philip K. Dick, Octavia Butler, and Samuel R. Delany, largely because all of these writers share the same philosophical concerns with epistemology and identity within the superstructure of capitalism. But Shavers’s form recalls the works of Jean Toomer and Amiri Baraka more than it does traditional science fiction. The novel has been described as experimental, but that’s because Shavers is less interested in plot than in form. That is, to truly appreciate or even talk about Silverfish, you have to approach it formally, with an eye toward its aesthetic reach (I mean, you could try to ignore the form, but it pretty much smacks you upside the head and grabs you by the lapels and Batman-screams “look at me!”). Indeed, Shavers goes out of his way to draw the reader’s attention to this aspect of his work, switching between typefaces to an almost dizzying degree. Conversations between human characters follow a standard paragraph-break format (although without the quotation marks), while the spoken dialogue of Angel is in bold. Angel’s inner monologue is delivered in italics, and, if that weren’t enough, Angel also experiences (or thinks?) in a series of bolded, bracketed, and italicized fragments of other texts. With these outside texts Shavers quotes from a massive library of sources, only some of which are glossed in the epilogue; in a span of less than a hundred pages the text integrates the words of Ralph Ellison, the Bible, Percival Everett, Bertrand Russell, Mozart, Flavor Flav, and so many more. In other words, every page reminds you that this is a novel about language and meaning, and it requires your active interpretation to grasp not only the novel’s narrative but also its philosophical ramifications.
In less sure hands, the totality of Silverfish’s formal effect could have come across as a gimmick, a problem that a lot of avant-garde art struggles with. And to some readers, the novel might still be off-putting simply because it does require a certain amount of effort and buy-in. But if you go along with Shavers, he delivers a fascinating interrogation of language and signification, all delivered through whip-smart dialogue and subtle yet effective worldbuilding. His form is always in service to the narrative and world; or, perhaps more accurately, his narrative is derived from his form. Our access to the world is constrained by the conversations we encounter, the data that the Angel records, as if we’re always only partially aware of what’s going on—that behind the curtain is simply another layer of meaning to be parsed and debated. Yet all we have are these conversations, brief flashes of insight that reveal a world deeply broken and enthralled by markets and trade at the expense of all else.
That conversation—language and signs and metaphor—is Shavers’s point. When Angel encounters the silverfish, she’s wary, afraid of her own annihilation. But the answer is kind and warm, as the silverfish assure her they only “wanted a conversation … an old-fashioned conversation using language you could understand—and you do understand, don’t you? It’s what’s there underneath all that code, the whole messy, sloppy, metaphorical part of it. It’s what makes you, you” (p. 46). Language, in other words, is slippery and frustrating, at turns conservative and constraining while at others transgressive and liberating. Capitalist culture is decidedly intolerant toward a flexible sign system and will repeatedly obfuscate and crack down on any attempts to penetrate its indecipherable web of corpo-speak and market-driven language. Our capacity for resistance is tied directly to our ability to articulate ourselves within the system, to more accurately map our positions. There are other tools and strategies for drawing this map, but for Shavers, language is one of the key source codes.
The apocalypse did happen, but there were few around who had the means to recognize it for what it was. The end of the world is an absence of metaphor, that’s how Beagel described it, but that’s not what he meant. He meant the absence of metaphor was an absence of the chance to make alterations or substitutions, new patterns. (p. 64)
For all of its capitalist-drenched despair, Silverfish ultimately ends with a utopian gesture toward a more equitable and hospitable future. Shavers offers only hints as to how this brighter tomorrow might be achieved, though, and if there’s a place where the novel falters it is in its unwavering privileging of language. While language is understood as malleable and therefore powerful, the idea that capitalism and/or war might be solved purely through better communication and a more flexible and/or adaptable language is perhaps too optimistic. I’m a linguistics person, so I want language and education to be the key to a more just world, but I’m torn. My criticism could be blunted if we consider that the type of communication Shavers calls for is one of infinite reach and intimate depth, which is in itself a utopian ideal. As well, Shavers (and the novel) understands language as much more than spoken or written words, so it’s perhaps unfair to assume that Shavers imagines war might be solved if we all just talked to each other more. Still, more persuasive is the novel’s suggestion that talking with each other might be a better method of communicating than killing each other—and that the neoliberal impulse to assign use-value to every interaction in a person’s life is itself apocalyptic.
… the Angels were capable of examining the world from multiple perspectives, telling a story in multiple ways at once, and in this capacity they surpassed their contemporary human counterparts. (p. 88)
Silverfish works to actively challenge and equip the reader with a better set of tools to navigate and identify oppressive systems, and for that I love it. But I also love it because it’s an aesthetically exciting work, one that crackles with a transformative, aggressive energy that’s equal parts compelling and damning. The book is slim and I immediately wanted more, but not necessarily more stories following Clayton or Angel or wetwork technology (although I would happily read all of those in a second). Instead, I simply want more work from Shavers, because his point of view and voice are so distinctly propulsive, and his intertextual approach encourages—practically demands—multiple readings, which I’m looking forward to. With Silverfish he establishes himself as an important figure in the genre space; he understands that the greatest value in speculative fiction is its ability to reveal the contemporary, even while it sets itself in different times and spaces. Silverfish dazzles and confuses, excites and terrifies. This is a great book, full stop.