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Bangs-Unity-coverDanae is twelve thousand years old, but her body is scarcely more than thirty. Her twelve thousand years don’t stretch back into the Paleolithic, but rather mark the cumulative, overlapping experiences of two hundred and twenty-three people, chosen for their diversity and talent, who have agreed to fold their consciousnesses into a networked unity. She is skilled, smart, compassionate—a humanitarian at her core—but when we meet her she is hollowed by regret. We learn she has committed some unforgivable crime that many years prior forced her to quarantine herself from the rest of her collective identity. Now, with nebulous world powers on the verge of mutual annihilation, she goes in search of the rest of her unity, only to learn how many of her assumptions about herself, her selves, and the broader world have been tragically wrong.

The plot of Unity—author Elly Bangs’s debut novel—plays out against a peri-apocalyptic wasteland, where biospheres sustain subaquatic cities and only the unluckiest people remain on Earth’s radioactive surface. Bangs dreamed the premise of her novel nearly two decades ago, when she was in high school, but the themes of Unity are especially resonant now, two years after the pandemic forced us into our homes and online. Like Danae, we now know what it feels like for our bodies to be so vulnerable to the external world’s apocalyptic threats; we have more practice than ever in splintering our consciousnesses across vast networks not entirely unlike that of the unity.

Perhaps because of its long development, the novel seems to bear the traces of nearly as many former lives as does its protagonist. In an interview with Paul Semel, Bangs summarizes the novel’s basic premise as follows:

The last surviving fragment of a collective consciousness whose other bodies have been killed hires a remorse-stricken master assassin to help her and her lover escape from an underwater city and guide them across the post-collapse American Southwest under the looming specter of apocalyptic war—pursued by a bloodthirsty aquatic warlord and an obsessed cybernetic bodysnatcher.

Her description captures the spirit of Unity’s frenetic plot, which opens in an underwater setting to which it never returns and concludes at an Arizona inn, skirting the edge of a tattered Phoenix (symbolism no doubt deliberate). In the intervening pages, the novel covers a lot of ground and tackles a dizzying range of issues: climate change; weapons of mass destruction; surveillance; technological singularity; religious fanaticism; organized crime; gender fluidity and non-normative sexuality; toxic masculinity; sexual violence and stalking; personal trauma; the perils of nationalism; the nature of consciousness; the insufficiency of language; the meaning of art; the meaning of love. That list could continue.

If that sounds disorienting, it’s because it is. Luckily, the novel’s compelling characters anchor the plot and make the novel easier to read—an impressive feat in and of itself, given how difficult it must be to maintain character consistency when writing a collective consciousness. Unity is organized in alternating point-of-view chapters featuring Danae, Alexei (her hired assassin guardian), the Borrower (her body-snatching stalker), and “I” (whose identity only becomes clear in the final pages of the novel). Each of these characters is complex and engaging, particularly Alexei, whose redemption arc—from orphan to assassin to savior—drives much of the emotional trajectory of the novel. Two key characters meanwhile remain intentionally absent from the point-of-view chapters: Danae’s dedicated companion and lover, Naoto, a talented muralist whose goodness and purity of intention render him flat, but irresistibly likable; and Kat, Alexei’s constant long-distance companion.

Kat’s character in particular introduces some of the novel’s more fascinating concepts. She’s a hacker of the future—a voluntary cyborg who hooks her body and mind into what she calls the “nodespace” (Unity’s futuristic internet). Her networked consciousness serves as the counterpoint to that of the unity, with her brand of networked connectivity more closely resembling our own. Despite the prosthetic extension of her senses across the digital world, her singular consciousness limits her abilities to those things to which she can pay attention. Unlike the unity, she remains one person.

In the final act of the novel, Kat reenters “meatspace” at a crucial moment, but leaving her nodespace leaves her feeling lonely, much like Danae, whose severance from the unity feels like an amputation. “I don’t belong here,” Kat laments. “I’m a fish out of water.” Her desperation to “get back to where [she] can make sense of anything” underscores our own digital dependencies. She is the evolutionary link between a version of the present and a projection of the singularity. Mapping Kat’s desperation onto Danae’s longing for her greater self prompts questions about what it means to be connected. Are we addicted to our digital environments, or have we integrated them into a broader understanding of what it means to be human?

To explore this topic, Bangs pulls ideas from a number of her science-fictional forebears. Unity’s ancestry, she explains, comes from TV and film classics like Mad Max, Hackers, Star Trek, and others, and these influences are plainly apparent in her text. While Mad Max and Hackers dominate the novel’s aesthetic, Star Trek provokes its philosophical interests. In Star Trek, the Borg are a hive mind that dispassionately seeks to assimilate as many species and societies as possible. They represent a chief existential threat for the Federation, which valorizes individual freedom and self-determination above all else. “We are Borg,” they repeatedly insist. “Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.”

Unity’s eponymous collective resembles the Borg inasmuch as it too scans the known universe for the best and brightest, aiming to assimilate them into something greater than the sum of their parts. Bangs’ approach is a little more nuanced, in part because her novel is liberated from the ideological humanism of the Star Trek franchise. She has spoken in interviews of her disappointment with the “zombie horror” of the Borg, who are simply mindless drones in an authoritarian hive rather than active participants in “a gestalt organism with a combined memory and algorithmic intelligence.” Through Unity, Bangs endeavors to show us that radical connectivity of digitally augmented sociality does not necessarily produce a nightmare of homogeneity. Unlike the Borg, the novel’s unity privileges difference over sameness. It is a utopian enterprise, and as such its entrants are only received by consent. Like all utopias, however, Unity’s utopia must come face to face with the violent rupture that must occur in the process of exchanging one world for another.

No matter how compelling these questions are, Unity’s premise puts Bangs in an all but impossible bind. There is no writer skilled or experienced enough to credibly craft a first-person narrative from the perspective of someone as knowledgeable as a twelve-thousand-year-old collective consciousness, and Danae’s character feels out of step with the truth of her experience. Even if we overlook her distractingly normal vocabulary, Danae makes inexplicable decisions based on a rigid appreciation of ethical righteousness, which belies the diversity of consciousnesses enfolded within her cognition. For example, she refuses to admit that her crime, which we learn is entirely justifiable, could be forgiven. Of her devoted paramour, Naoto, she thinks: “In some other world, we could have been simply in love. Maybe we could have been one person. In this universe I was too broken for the former and too damned for the latter.” For someone so bright and altruistic, she lacks compassion and cognitive flexibility to see how unity with him would benefit them both. The conceit may have been easier to carry through a short story, but the novel must sacrifice Danae’s wisdom to the need to sustain dramatic tension. To be fair, Bangs isn’t the first to write herself into this corner—SF loves to imagine hyperintelligent beings—and some suspension of disbelief carries her novel through these challenges. But the problem for Unity is thus the same as for many of its characters. As Danae summarizes: “Words, words … Language is a painfully inefficient way to copy a thought from one brain to another.”

For its own part, Unity remains aware of the challenges it lays for itself. Meditations on language and art pepper the novel, emphasizing the redemptive potential of expression, even against the impossibility of unfiltered communication. And that forms the dilemma at the heart of this novel. Unity seeks to express a state of inexpressibility. We have all brushed against the limits of communication. We have all wished we could somehow share our inner experiences without having them polluted by the space between our minds and the minds of others. Unity enters the space of that frustration and moves beyond it. What if, the novel asks, we could merge with others? Would war end? Would love flourish? Or would something else happen?

My favorite moment in the novel, arguably Unity’s thesis, involves a conversation between Danae and an artist she meets on the street. She stands in awe of his work— holographic light art—which he describes as his “great opus.” About its meaning, he explains, “It’s not possible to speak it. To try would only do violence to the entire truth of it.” When she asks him whether he would, given the chance, enjoy communicating his truth without the need for language, he rejects the notion. “There would be no art at all,” he replies. His philosophy of art suits the political thrust of the novel: it is art, not information, that connects us; and redemption for the world’s sins will not be found in cognitive unity, but rather the beauty that comes from difference.

 



Nicole Berland is an instructor and PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill, where she studies contemporary science-fiction television seriality. Her writing has appeared in PopMatters, The Carolina Quarterly, INDY Week, The Anarres Project, and several other publications. Visit her website, or find her on Twitter @nicwinnik.
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