Remember the first Robocop? The 1987 movie directed by Paul Verhoeven was an unusual mix of low comedy and violent sci-fi battle. It featured an anarchic corporatized city with a corrupt privatized police force – a pessimistic vision of a dog-eat-dog, free-market America – plus fighting robots. It pleased kids and leftist undergrads at the same time. That film was doing what speculative fiction has been doing since 1984 – attacking a thinly veiled present through an imaginary future – but it used humour as part of its dystopia.
This combination of broad satire and futurist speculation has infused many recent cultural products: The comic novel of Gary Shteyngart, for example, Super Sad True Love Story, is set in an accelerated world in which a repressive United States government encourages consumerism to staunch discontent. Much cyberpunk shares this critical stance: All of William Gibson’s writing evinces a fixation with current trends in globalization and privatization and a clear ideological bent.
The two cultural products I couldn’t wait for at the end of the summer were a novel and a movie based on a novel: Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo and David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. One turned out to be a rollicking farce, the other a stiff and serious treatise about the value of money. One reads like a science-fiction movie, the other looks a lot like a play (by a philosophy student). And yet they are similar in many ways. Both display the cozy affinity of speculative narrative for comic send-up, an overlay that we’ve been enjoying since semi-comic sci-fi movies like Robocop.
Both book and film are dystopian visions of a current society that looks like a future society – a contemporary world on stimulants and steroids, a world without much effective law and order. Both are hyperbolized visions: They depict a culture with too much and not enough money, a culture with few values. Both are satirical, as all good science-fiction is. Lionel Asbo is explicitly funny; Cosmopolis takes itself much more seriously. But the movie, like the novel on which it is based, is constantly provoking uncomfortable smiles. Its humour lies in its absurd exaggerations: the 28-year-old mogul, Eric Packer, who has two elevators in his apartment, going at different speeds and playing different music. He has his prostate examined in his limousine by his private doctor while having a meeting with one of his researchers. His head of security has a voiceprint-activated handgun (just like James Bond in the new movie, by the way).
This world of obscene privilege and daily chaos is almost the same world as that of the British novel, the amped-up New York in one a version of amped-up London in the other. In Amis’s novel (subtitled “State of England,” just in case you didn’t get its political value), a low-level criminal thug, an obvious sociopath, wins the lottery and becomes a tabloid celebrity. He goes to live for a time in a hotel that caters exclusively to people like him, a whole new class of person: the violent, uneducated, paparazzi-pursued rich. He hires a PR company to provide him with a (fake) celebrity girlfriend – a similarly crass and scary creature who calls herself “Threnody” (the quotation marks are part, she insists, of her name, and are used in every reference). Asbo’s rise to fame helps sell her books of god-awful poetry, and their fake romance humanizes him for a tabloid readership. It’s a business relationship – in a world of investment alliances and quickly shifting money, like the numbers floating on the trader’s screen.
One could imagine Asbo’s limo crossing paths with Packer’s. In one remarkable similarity, both anti-heroes find themselves trying to increase their fortunes by speculating in Asian currency: Packer engages the Chinese yuan, disastrously; Asbo “attacks” the yen with great success. (In the novel Cosmopolis, Packer loses on the yen, not the yuan.) The completely abstract world of currency trading is an attractive symbol, I guess, to futurist critics, a symbol for a world made of abstractions, a virtual world like the matrix itself.
Here’s another, somewhat unsettling, parallel: Compare the protagonist of Cosmopolis and the antagonist of 50 Shades of Grey. Both are multimillionaire businessmen; one is 28, one is 27; both excite women by being mean to them. One represents a cautionary tragedy, the other an ideal husband. Here are the warring genres of 2012: Dystopia versus utopia, set in the same landscape.