04 September 2017

Review: Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson

Trade paperback, 149 pages
Published 2017

Acquired and read August 2017
Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson

M. T. Anderson is a master of many genres: satire, romance, historical fiction. Here he returns to science fiction, the genre of his most popular novel, Feed, with Landscape with Invisible Hand. The bookmark that came with my review copy of Landscape with Invisible Hand includes this quotation from Anderson himself linking the two: "If Feed was about constantly being sold to, Landscape with Invisible Hand is about how we now have to constantly have to sell ourselves." An alien race called the vuvv has come to Earth, bringing their advanced technology-- which has completely wrecked the human economy. The 1% get richer through their investment in vuvv technology and manufacturing, but many humans are quickly put out of work by automation, and then things spiral out of control-- as people can't afford things, other jobs progressively collapse, leaving the majority of humanity unemployed.

The main character is Adam, who as Anderson's quote indicates, himself becomes a commodity: he and his girlfriend Chloe (whose family rents from Adam's because they can't afford their own home) livestream their relationship to vuvv observers, who fund them in a sort of Patreon- or Kickstarter-esque way because they find human coupling really fascinating. The vuvv especially like 1950s culture because that's when they first came to Earth, so Adam and Chloe try to emulate the period in their relationship. Even though they make good money, this lack of authenticity soon begins to wear on their relationship, but the worse it gets the more they need it.

The other quote Landscape with Invisible Hand brought to mind was this passage from the first chapter of The War of the Worlds: "And before we judge of them [the Martians] too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?" In its way, Landscape with Invisible Hand is much more of a The War of the Worlds update for the twenty-first century than the Steven Spielberg film or Independence Day. Like Wells's novel, it mirrors what our civilization does to other ones with aliens coming to ours. The way the vuvv economic needs cause the human economy to collapse, and the vuvv "help" humanity by doing occasional medical missionary work, or claim to enjoy human art, but have an out-of-date, ossified, condescending way of perceiving it, mirror the way America can treat countries outside of "the First World." Just as the Martians were us all along, so are the vuvv.

It's not a fun read; it's probably one of Anderson's darkest (not that he's consistently lighthearted or something). Even the jokes are typically dark and depressing, such as the ongoing development of how Chloe's brother is reacting to the vuvv invasion. It's very potent though, and well put together in the way that every M. T. Anderson novel is. Probably it's biggest crime is that it's short, with just 149 pages that aren't exactly packed with text. This prevents the characters from achieving the kind of depth necessary to really fell their tragedy, like you do in Feed even though the characters in that book are almost universally awful. On the other hand, its length makes it a compelling, quick read-- I zipped through the whole thing in two evenings and felt satisfied. I suspect Landscape with Invisible Hand will be a minor work from a major talent.

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