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This Weightless World coverAdam Soto’s debut, This Weightless World, is a quiet novel, its words wound so tightly that only a sigh escapes the conclusive end. The textual atmosphere is rich, the pace moves across time and universes, and the characters are impossible in the worldliest of ways. Nevertheless, responses to the novel have been tentative, coloured by a sense of thwarted expectations and surprise.

Is this science fiction? Does it tend more towards the speculative? Is it too literary?

This Weightless World is mostly set in Chicago and California during Barack Obama’s presidency, beginning in 2011 with the discovery of a signal from an extraterrestrial planet called Omni 3x7. As the world tries to accommodate this zeitgeist-defining moment, the characters determine the shape of their future. Sevi, a cello teacher, falls back in love with his ex, Ramona, a righteous Google employee. He also reconnects with his activist brother, Samson. In a Black neighbourhood, Sevi’s student, Eason, grapples with the accidental death of his childhood friend and treats the signal with a calculated indifference. Interspersed through the movements of these characters are conversations from the past and the future. In the future, a space-faring astronaut discusses old events with an AI and, in the past, a man sends messages to the Soviet Union about meeting Carl Sagan and working with him.

If the novel is difficult to classify, then, it is not in terms of its genre. I don’t see any reason to doubt that it is a steadfastly science-fictional novel. If we consider it in terms of the usual tropes, the very presence of artificial intelligence, space travel, and pink life-bearing planets guarantee the novel’s generic position, placing the novel somewhere within a quaint hierarchical categorization between literary, literary-but-popular, and “here are dragons and aliens” types of fiction. For a book published in 2021, all these debates about literariness—golden wave, new wave, real(ism) and (machine-fed) pulp, hard and soft—feel a little snobby. Even more, they seem defensively deployed because they are outdated. Market trends and consumer reports determine form and genre far more than clear-cut academic definitions, so it feels like a strange thing for the reception of a book to grumble about.

On the other hand, when the blurb itself says that the novel produces a “dazzling deconstruction of science fiction tropes,” I scarcely know what that means—even after I finished reading the book. Can a novel that defies genre, or breaks genre-boundaries, be a work within a genre? Does the lack of a given trope determine a genre more than its presence? Was I wrong above to argue that tropes and genres are not fixed arrangements, but, always and already, aesthetic figurations in infinite combinations and patterns?

Ultimately, however, I don’t really care about what makes the novel “literary,” or whether it is too good for its own science fiction tropes, as much as the blurb seems to imply that. I find myself wondering instead about what kind of science fiction it is. The novel is definitely an alien first-contact story, much like Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem (2008) or, more recently, Benjamin Percy’s The Ninth Metal (2021). Because the characters actively refashion themselves around Omni’s transmission, however, and because the sense of threat/urgency is subdued, This Weightless World might seem closer to the dystopian narrative of Ling Ma’s Severance (2018). The sections of the novel which are set in the future bear a close resemblance to Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010)—less because it shares a mode of narrativizing conversations between an AI and a space-traveller, and mostly because of a complicated relationship to time. Indeed, there are also elements of straightforward alternate history and time travel here.

So, all things considered, the novel in fact fits into many sub-genres. Despite this multiple generic slotting, This Weightless World stands out, and the question is whether that is because of its proximity to realism—usually considered in direct contrast to SFF—rather than any of its genre trappings per se. Soto’s relationship to real-world science, and primarily to technology, is where this line of inquiry seems to bear the most weight: technology is the foil of science fiction’s “unrealistic” tendencies; how are realism and science fiction in conversation with each other in this novel, and how does this produce the world and the characters of the novel?

*

The origins of science fiction are generally drawn back to romanticism, with its emphasis on the imagination and its investments in the future; equally, realism is related to the birth of science and modernity, with a microscope trained on reason and objectivity. If the two movements differ, this is less a direct antagonism and more about the attitude each took towards scientific practice. It is almost impossible today to think of science outside of discipline and rigour—the necessity of facts, minute detail, experiments, and proofs—but that was never the only way science was practiced. Where romanticism emphasized the natural familiarity of science, realist representations emphasized objectivity, a mode where reality is ontologically separate from human perception and intervention. Despite their origins, however, contemporary science fictional narratives in fact owe a lot to the objective sense-making that might traditionally have been situated within the realist tradition—simply because it is the dominant mode of scientific practice today [1].

The counterintuitive tendency has nevertheless been to assume that science fiction tends more towards romanticism—imaginative worlds and unique geniuses—than realism or scientific “truth,” and this tension often evinces itself in the genre’s representations of technology. In science fiction novels, technological representations are usually classified in terms of whether they are hard or soft, where the hard tends more towards the scientifically consistent and, therefore, probable. Hard enough, and there is objective truth to it, but when the McGuffin tends more towards the social sciences or is more theoretical, then—poof—it looks like magic.

Soto’s technology does not fit either of these labels, since it is familiar—some of it old-fashioned like computer systems, the internet, and cell phones, while others less accessible but still granular, such as fully-equipped observatories and still others rather more imaginative coinages, like sentient AI and spaceships. In all these varied cases, however, Soto’s technology is ubiquitous, dispersed across software and hardware as mundane in the twenty-first century as electricity. The alien signal at the heart of This Weightless World is reported about for months before it is broadcasted by SETI on New Year’s Eve, as “part of a marketing strategy”; when Sevi, the cello teacher, listens to it on his speakers, he describes it almost like a Pitchfork review of an ambient music album. There’s nothing strange or novel about it, as habitual as violence. Early in the novel, Eason’s father reacts to the news of the accidental death of Eason’s childhood friend, which occurs at the same time as the broadcast constantly being reported, with a weary comment on the media’s apparent indifference towards the Black community: “Another young man dies, and we get a planet.” More than anything else, technology, however advanced, is represented in this novel as a mass market product; its existence part of the packaged sameness that is late-stage capitalism.

The signal represents a disruption to this banality: it is broadcast over and over, a standard repetition, producing new ways of making the world. The luscious pink colour of the new planet is seen everywhere, and people, quickly veering between optimism and paranoia, consider how to be better. Systemic shifts in policy are contemplated in terms of climate change or alleviating poverty, and, on fora across the world, people imagine newer modes of dissent on the streets. Soto carefully represents the development of these responses through the third person, sometimes delivered in small shifts, sometimes through broad montages, sometimes through the confusion of a polyphony. Technology moves into the background. The shifts, paradigmatic or not, are subtle, become almost imperceptible. The only way I can describe it is through another image: that of an endless and distantly-interconnected game of marbles. A few balls of sea-glass glide from sidewalk to bus stop, enter a room and exit through windows—and, sometimes, lodge themselves within numerous virtual screens. The experience of reading all this is that of mapping the sound of one marble hitting another, the note lingering long after it has passed. In keeping with the image, Soto’s characters are usually in transit, the world filtering in—sometimes, all too much of it. Their responses to the paradigmatically shifting world are rarely dramatized; instead, we read long, beautiful crafted sentences about what these responses set in motion in other settings and characters.

This character-driven, reflective, often reactionary introspection about the nature of the world-in-transition is central to the development of the novel form, especially in terms of the relationship between society and the individual (encountered in the realist mode in the work of, for example, George Eliot [2]). Many contemporary science fiction or fantasy novels are driven by exposition, which allows the reader to imagine (and even interpret) conceptual ideas broadly, dreaming towards a Jamesonian model of science-fiction utopias [3]. Soto’s world, on the other hand, is more Eliotian: actually mostly expositionless, assuming that its world is one we already live in (meaning it is de facto real and relatable, at least for those familiar with America and contemporary American fiction). Soto’s exposition instead leans towards depicting a mode of feeling, rather than a new technological invention.

But wait. In her Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep (2010)—the first book-length study of the relationship between realism and science fiction I’m trying to tease out here—Seo-Young Chu argues that all representation is a little science-fictional because it is an attempt to describe things that are cognitively estranging, and most things in the world are. In this view, readers always need a little push to understand complex infrastructures and concepts so that they “acquire proportions that the muscles, nerves, and sinews of our bodies can recognize kinesthetically.” Perhaps tellingly, Soto’s writing fits immediately into these terms, except that when he speaks of it, he doesn’t use the science fiction scholar Darko Suvin’s critical term: “cognitive estrangement.” Instead of “estrangement,” Soto has stated in an interview that he wanted to write a novel whose subject matter was “alienation.”

*

Darko Suvin took “estrangement” from the Brechtian lexicon (from the German Verfremdung), as well as from Victor Shklovsky’s formalist theories. Cognitive estrangement intends to produce an effect that is different from this formalist tradition, sometimes even contentiously so. Alienation, on the other hand, is so variegated that it can be used like a blanket term, interpreted with lenses from existentialism to Marxism. It is a broad category that has been part of the novel since its origin in an industrialized marketplace.

Soto uses “alienation” in an unorthodox Marxist manner, somewhat deriving its pathos and listlessness from the Frankfurt School’s theories of alienation. Certain moments point towards this feeling of displacement and monotony—such as the novel’s propensity to describe the many sites of gentrification (in Chicago and California), its attention to the allure of consumer-targeted products (flashy buses, yogurt-on-the-go, and of course, technology), and even the repeated use of words like “stuck” or “petrified.” But it is most pronounced as a feeling the characters experience when grappling with late capitalism, almost as an extension of the modernity with which the Frankfurt School were originally grappling.

In terms of the story This Weightless World is trying to tell, however, “alienation” begins to take centre stage in the year 2011: the novel is as much about the alien signal received by SETI as it is about Occupy, a popular left-leaning movement that manifested as large mobilizations on the streets of North America in the wake of the 2008 financial crash; alienation, after all, was one of the significant talking points. Both these events flash and fizzle in the background, but there is more of an attempt to situate Occupy through historical markers—like the protests around the use of public bus stops to transport Google employees on flashy private buses, or the shutting down of public schools in Chicago. In the midst of it, the characters are paradoxical: they imagine themselves to be peripheral, constantly on the fray, unable to join either side of the protest barricade even though they resolutely belong within the system. They remain in place, then, and no action, especially political or romantic, will be convincing enough to provide a denouement. They tend towards the world, reaching to be a part of something bigger than themselves, but bitterly unable to situate themselves precisely within it. In this sense, this is not a narrative about mobilizing for protests and anti-establishment action; the active roles are forsaken. Instead, the narrative follows a feeling of restless, constantly displaced energy, identifying it in characters and settings alike as it reaches its end.

This constant displacement of feeling is simple. Desire for a paradigm shift becomes the motive for romance, survival becomes the motive for industry, monotony breeds monotony. Soto’s work identifies many disparate feelings—foreboding, hope, and repentance—and sometimes exposes an eschatological mood at its heart. The cultural theorist Sianne Ngai calls this a “weak affect”—not a lack of agency but a suspension of the agentive role, the dominant aesthetic mode of late capitalism, reflected in all that can be characterized as art. This Weightless World maps this feeling as a response to a shifting but ultimately doomed world. In their suspended states, the characters betray very little investment in the future. They swing back and forth between making choices, returning to the site of the decision over and over as the momentum picks up. And, because the event is first contact and aliens, their response is always directed towards the world at large. There are two choices: give up the comforts of a consumerist capitalist society or give into it—but either way, the result remains the same. Worse still for these characters, the choice is neither determining nor permanent.

Let there be a paradigm shift; the characters are resolutely, bitterly stuck.

*

Why, then, does This Weightless World stand out? I have gestured towards some sites of the relationship between science fiction and realism within the novel: there is science and technology; there’s mass culture and the individual. And, among it all, there’s the paradigm shift that never quite sticks. After all, halfway through the novel, SETI stops receiving the alien signal and all optimism is lost. Usually, first contact narratives are about ruptures, a bifurcation between the past and the present, reflecting glinting edges amidst a universe suddenly larger than our own. But what if nothing changes? What if there’s nothing to change—not our world, not even ourselves?

This Weightless World engages with science fiction through these concerns. It asks why this is the case, and answers it by critiquing the social reality that is capitalism. In this process, Soto historicizes, showing how, in their suspended states, the characters and the world produce and reproduce its continuity. He also exposes some of the fissures, constantly returning to the site of the alienated individual crashing against their desire for community and substantial belonging. Through these conflicts, confrontations, and complicities, Soto injects realism into science fiction and its tropes (instead of the other way around, where literary writers instrumentalize genre while keeping themselves apart from it). This, more than anything else, allows the novel to be seen as an attempt to think through science fiction’s own realist underpinnings.

Endnotes

[1] Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007)[return]

[2] Georg Lukács, Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994). [return]

[3] Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2007). [return]



Shinjini Dey is an editor, writer, and reviewer. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Review of Books, Analog Fact and Fiction, Decolonial Hacker and many others. She can be found on Twitter at @shinjini_dey.
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