Rene Georg Vasicek’s The Defectors delivers an unexpected spin on genre staples like robots, alternate lives, and authoritarianism with the story of Zig, a proud Czech who narrates a series of escapes into many different lives, each stranger than the last. Zig’s movements from reality to reality begin when, working as a secret policeman in communist-era Prague, he encounters the underground of literary Prague by chasing down a writer, Vera, with he whom he starts an affair. But the further his lives unfold, the harder he tries to escape them. Zig’s many different lives, a new one presented in each chapter, begin and end without definite access points. Zig may not know how he shifts from existence to existence, but he’s always looking for a new one. Despite these efforts, however, he cannot help reenacting the same actions, based on the universal human needs of sex, community, and love. Zig’s flight from himself eventually leads him a playful chase down into the dark labyrinth of his own worst habits.
But it all begins with Vera. Zig commences his affair with her after becoming fed up with constantly having to convince his wife of his own fidelity. Setting out apparently to prove her right, he and Vera benefit mutually from their illicit relationship, each collecting intelligence on the other. When Vera finally immigrates to America, Zig insists she only had value to him professionally—but in fact, the affair had been an escape both from the oppressive government which employs him and what he experiences as a nagging family life. Despite the justification he provides, Zig’s actions are based in blatant cowardice. But this first, self-centered exposure to freedom drives Zig away from his reality, despite his insistence on remaining in Prague, where he cannot escape either his government or his family commitment.
Zig indulges himself by dating poets, artists, and dreamy college students. If he can seduce creative people, he feels he can change his personal reality to a better life; but he cannot decide on what that would entail. One girl he dates, Nataliya, introduces him to her Uncle Vitaliy, a one-eyed wise man reminiscent of Odin, who tells Zig that he’s a “superficial student of life.” Zig embraces this identity, sometimes becoming a poet or novelist himself, but always with enthusiasm for the material world. By discussing his affairs in the open, Zig becomes a much more eccentric figure and a quirky sense of humor emerges. He waxes poetic about Pilsner beer and touts Czech inventions that changed the world. Additionally, he asserts a kind of working-class sensibility, often finding employment as a machinist, but he’s too absorbed by the aesthetics of the world for this be an authentic everyman. When he works in a factory, he has an eye toward becoming a novelist or a poet, and spends most of his time describing his latest romance. Embracing his hypocrisy allows Zig to appear to have even more lives into which he might escape
However, Zig still craves other people and wants their company. Zig’s constant attention to women stems from his persistent need to build a support system for himself. He charms his way into relationships. He appears optimistic and has enough skill to motivate people that when in one life he does go to America, he travels and spreads a kind of gospel of prosperity. Zig always seems to believe that he can move to a life with less work and more leisure. But despite nominal ambition, his life never improves. His relationships never develop further, either. He is somehow irresistible to women, but has little ability to connect with them. Zig’s female companions blur together with similar names, and follow predictable patterns until one homicidal ex, Zoë, tries to hunt him down. His eternal escapism defies not only the love of the women with whom he starts families, but anyone else who appears to genuinely like him as well. In one of his few appearances, Zig’s own father sucker-punches him in the middle of a bar because Zig had let the Czech government tell his parents he had died. Despite his father’s disapproval, this more assertive Zig becomes a captivating con-artist, easy-going and funny.
Zig always feels most at home when trying to deceive people, then. That very dishonesty, however, makes him an awful father. He has biological children that he routinely abandons with their moms, because Zig proves to be afraid to become a father. Children threaten Zig, as shown by two robots that he builds and comes to love in a pair of stories. Cyclops, a robot shaped like an eyeball that follows him around, reading his thoughts, also serves as the best way for his enemies to track him. Zig frequently calls Cyclops his “buddy,” but he uses it as a term of endearment, as if to a small child. Rather, Cyclops allows Zig to externalize his inner thoughts in the form of a dialogue. He also becomes a nuisance. In some well-placed irony, Cyclops’s doubling of Zig’s thoughts infringes intimate moments, especially with lovers. Cyclops also provides an obvious target for Jörg, the man Zoë dates after Zig dumps her, since only Zig has a robot tagging along everywhere: find Cyclops and you find his owner. Ultimately, Zig must dismantle Cyclops, the physical manifestation of his self-obsession, but not until after the robot has invaded his every private moment and jeopardized his independence.
In other words, Zig cannot accept the physical needs of child, even a robot one. His immaturity also comes to the fore when he confronts the emotional toil a robot child affects on its parent. The other robot that Zig abandons is a golem he helped build with his Uncle Vitaliy. Zig constructs the golem out of stainless steel, and unleashes it on New York City to play street hoops—though he remains responsible for its actions, just like a dad taking his child to the park. However, Zig himself depends on his student-turned-lover Nataliya for everything in this parenting relationship: she instigates the loss of his university teaching job by bragging about their affair, and then she convinces Uncle Vitaliy to hire him in the first place. A former colleague, a dubious mentor figure from Zig’s past, suggests to Zig that Nataliya and Uncle Vitaliy are Russian sleeper agents bent on using the golem as a weapon. Zig’s transient existence prevents any strong patriotic feelings, but it’s the deception and harm involved with this idea that erodes what little loyalty he has. Even though this golem only wants to protect its builders, when Zig learns of the danger it represents, he turns on it for his own self-preservation—and because he resents the influence of greater authority. While he enjoys his relationships with all three of them, Zig makes the painfully frustrating choice to betray his surrogate family because he cannot stand the thought of the greater responsibility they symbolise.
The close memory of political dominance from the Soviet era looms over Zig’s life. He has not forgotten the pressure that working for authoritarians put upon him. His optimism and easy-going nature had been a defense until it became perverted when he got transferred to the Ministry of Laughter, an organization that exists to co-opt jokers into forced labor. Every time he has a “case,” Zig considers quitting. When he eventually goes to America, he does not miss the bureaucracy of the old order that made him feel trapped, though neither does he completely trust the new world to which he has traveled. In one life, he works for the Trotsky Institute of Technology with a supervisor named after Stalin and uses juvenile humor as a form of resistance. He is skeptical toward the American government, too. He flirts over the phone with an American president named Ursula, who wants his robot, Cyclops, but he never gives in. The only thing Zig trusts are those things which he himself builds, and yet, time and time again, he finds the source of his own anxiety is ultimately himself.
But Zig has a good reason to be frightened of his past. He might be the author of his own troubles, but he has no idea how to fix them, and often tries to hide behind humor or other diversionary tactics. Zig encounters a woman named Zoë in multiple stories. Once, she appears as his girlfriend in an iteration where he grew up in New York, and they have been together since their teenage years. In this story, Zig admits his own infidelity because he feels pressure from the large Greek family that he has joined through marriage to Zoë. Later, when Zig has Cyclops to look after, he finds himself interrupting Zoë’s sex life as well as his own. The robot has begun to act as a psychic transmitter, so when Zig fantasizes about Zoë, Cyclops basically transmits it into her mind. Zig affects everyone with whom he comes into contact. Ultimately, he finds himself unable to take responsibility for any relationship at all, but paradoxically, the further he runs the more people he meets.
Zig’s constant deference to his cowardly nature paints a comical self-portrait. The cyclical, unending journey presents Zig not only with an inability to finish what has been begun, but questions the utility of his domino effect of selfish choices. The Defectors may not offer a portrait of the hero who faces his fears, but it tracks the growth and evolution of the hero who avoids as he evades them. And it does so in bizarre, hilarious fashion.