Intelligent Design: A Fable (Cortland: N and S Publishers, 2006).
Science fiction writers have often produced a snapshot of the future to give us a critique of the present, though few have done this as explicitly as Joel Shatzky in Intelligent Design: A Fable. This is at once the novel’s strength and its weakness. As an erudite and even humorous discussion of the horrors of 21st-century capitalism and neo-conservatism, Intelligent Design hits the mark. But as a fictional account of one man’s encounter with this world thousands of years in the future, it has less to offer. Thankfully, this is no reason to avoid reading the book. Just as you would never argue that Woody Allen ruined Sleeper by making corny jokes, you risk missing the best parts of Shatzky’s book if you expect the weighty tone of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. The pleasure of reading Intelligent Design comes from the way Shatzky translates his frustration with the current political and economic order into the book’s alternate universe. The characters and plot work best as tour guides, and that’s just fine.
The Earth of Intelligent Design is recognizable, but just barely. Global warming, or “the Heating” as the characters refer to it, has turned the entire planet into an oven and driven human civilization beneath the surface. However, a new species of human – the Terrans – have adapted to this world and have thrived in its desolation. Homo sapiens, or “Saps” in Terran lingo, are still around but aren’t doing nearly as well. While the Terrans have figured out how to live peacefully on the desert landscape of the Earth’s north pole, the Humans live underground in a society that is both plutocratic and barbaric. Like the land they live on, Terran society itself is inhospitable to Humans because of its absolute egalitarianism. They have no government as we understand the term, and everything including labor is shared. To round out this utopia, to Terrans, the concept of greed is as unthinkable as is the need to lie.
The Humans, whose main city lies beneath Manhattan, have responded to the limited resources of this new world by amplifying the inequalities we see today. Their society allows a minority of people to live well at the expense of a vast majority who have been classified as EPs, or “expendable people.” An apparently normal life exists for a few Humans. They go to schools such as the ominously-titled Gates University, work at bureaucratic government jobs, and eat at pleasant restaurants. For the EPs, on the other hand, daily life is routinely horrifying. They’re denied an education, kept higher up near the toxic surface of the planet, and tortured in vast arenas for the entertainment of the privileged few. As if this weren’t degrading enough, the EPs regularly kill each other in gang wars over food rations and drugs, and are brutalized by a violent police force known as The Guardians. To empathize with an EP is considered a crime, and openly criticizing this two-tiered system can get you jailed, tortured, and re-educated. No wonder the Terrans live so far away and have avoided all contact with Humans for ages.
The book opens in the middle of their first encounter in recent memory. As it happens, the Humans are carrying out a plan to kidnap a Terran leader. Though they are not exactly successful, they do manage to bring two Terrans back to their country. The rest of the story largely follows the tellingly-named Terran “tracker” Sam Marlowe as he tries to get back home. Before he makes his escape, Marlowe foils a plot to manipulate the Terrans into cementing Human reign over the Earth, and raises a little Human consciousness as well. Any suspense to the story gets quickly deflated by the Terran’s superior mental and physical abilities, and while Shatzky creatively uses a variety of narrative perspectives, they tend to fall away soon after they’re introduced. If Shatzky had used Marlowe as the sole narrator, the tale would have taken on a much clearer resonance with the hard-boiled crime fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose work this character’s name and profession references. On the other hand, the different perspectives provide some of the book’s most enjoyable reading, so in this case a more consistent narrative style might have ruined a good deal of the story’s charm.
One of the most pleasing qualities of the book is the way Shatzky draws to outlandish lengths the present-day class, race, and global structures of inequality. It’s a prurient pleasure, seeing the ways Shatzky imagines how the Global South comes to the bowels of the Upper West Side. But it is a clarifying pleasure as well, to see bourgeois individualism painted with such broad strokes and figured in such grotesque ways. As any fan of George Orwell’s 1984 would admit, the power of that story is the feeling of authoritarianism which resonates long after the book is put down. This sensation in part comes from the uncanny features of our modern life that take on such monstrous functionalities in Winston Smith’s daily routine. In a similar way, Shatzky’s dystopia leaves one with the sensations of life under a social darwinist regime without the burden of having to read Herbert Spencer. The Terran utopia makes for great reading as well. The fact that everyone gets around by running or riding high-speed bicycles answers more questions about the nature of an advanced society than any contentious discussion between Human and Terran.
There are times when Shatzky forsakes description for dialogue to achieve his larger goals, and this takes away some of the book’s punch. Marlowe and his Human captors seem to talk a lot, but I’d rather see them spend more time chasing each other through the strange world they inhabit. However, if you don’t expect the conversations to move the plot along, they’re enjoyable in their own right. Shatzky clearly has a sensibility that lends itself to dialogue, and the verbal pratfalls he sets up for his characters help keep the discussions lively. When The President, during the final showdown with Marlowe, remarks that he’s going to tell the “whole and complete truth,” another politician pipes up, “I would advise you not to go quite that far, Mr. President.” It doesn’t make me laugh out loud, but I can’t help but smile at the hint of a vaudevillian drumbeat and cymbal crash that follows the punchline. The same sort of humor creates one of the best gags of the whole book. The Human plot to capture a Terran leader backfires for the simple reason that there are no Terran leaders – they live in a society that has no need of for them.
The humor also helps leaven Shatzky’s acute representations of developing-world poverty, the most significant feature of Human society Marlowe encounters. The EPs are not simply a version of the U.S. working poor. They are the world’s impoverished, and in the Humans’ violent disregard of them is a poignant description of the “globalized” masses and a clear analysis of the ruling class’s relationship to them. Our own time has its EPs, and they live in ways not far removed from those Shatzky depicts. In that regard, Intelligent Design updates the work of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed or Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, both of which provide trenchant political analysis through finely-detailed renditions of what poverty will look like in the future. Hopefully, Shatzky’s story-telling will soon rival Le Guin’s or Butler’s. It is a challenging task to artfully create committed fiction, and those two have set the standards quite high. Nevertheless, there is enough good reading in Intelligent Design to make me want to find its sequel, and plenty of food for thought to hold me over until then.
Reviewed by Victor Cohen
preparing an oral history of the New American Movement