Special Double Review
by Pedro Silva & Robert L Turner III
(Nineveh Editions, June 2018, pb, 102 pp.)
Reviewed by Pedro Silva
Fiction is restricted to utilitarian ends in Guillermo Stitch‘s “Literature®.”
Billy Stringer works as a sports writer for the Herald, one of a few newspapers on the pulse of the unnamed, future city Billy calls home, where book-burnings are lauded as public events. Taking on a colleague’s assignment, Billy plunges headfirst into the Willy Wonka-esque depths of Gripping Tails®, a top contender in the auto sector. There, Murphy, the company’s smooth-talking representative, guides a gaggle of journalists through a factory floor promo-event. On showcase is GrippingTails®’s latest innovation set to revolutionize the transportation industry: vehicles powered by fiction—or more precisely, the shifting neural connections triggered by fiction’s consumption. Bisecting the city is the Litera-Track®, freshly surfaced in proprietary material: a programmable, bioluminescent display from which passengers read text, and thus fuel their commute. “The road is the page,” as Billy remarks—and if that sounds too trite a metaphor, the story freely admits so; spouting out symbolic resonances, no matter how on the nose, is enough to red-flag Billy as an admirer of the Old Arts. Murphy, noticing, calls this Billy’s “literary bent;” the authorities, if made aware, would call it criminal.
Luckily, Murphy has a need for literary folk like Billy. Diminishing returns means re-reading the same stories won’t do, and now GrippingTails® is “running out of juice.” A wealth of Old Art texts are available to mine, but they’re too experimental, lacking the required narrative structure. That is, “as long as it’s neat,” explains Murphy, “that it knows where it’s going and that it goes there, it can power a drive.” He points Billy to a hidden floor, an off-the-books production-line for fiction, and offers Billy an ultimatum: join GrippingTails®’s secret fiction-authoring department, or be delivered to the authorities.
Billy leaves GrippingTails® pondering this dilemma, but Murphy’s offer isn’t the only thing on Billy’s mind: he’s recently gotten the boot from Jane, his girlfriend of two years, who has so far ignored any attempts at rekindling the flame. Now as Billy navigates the city, flashbacks intercut the narrative: one highlights his and Jane’s flirtatious first encounter; another introduces Jane’s brother, Vince, who is soon revealed to be a member of Gilgamesh, a rebel group seeking to preserve the Old Arts. It’s through Vince that Billy acquired his first banned novel, thus igniting Billy’s passion for Old Art literature, a quasi-addiction he feared would spell the end of his relationship to Jane—and seemingly does. Now with Murphy’s offer in hand, Billy must first seek out Vince, then track down Jane. With Murphy’s henchman on Billy’s tail, neither proves easy.
Stitch couches the story within a technical milieu that usually signals hard SF (the Cog® engine is powered via “changes in connectivity between supramarginal gyri and posterior temporal gyri,” for example). Yet questions persist: Pinpoint® is named as one of the technologies crucial to harnessing literature’s resources, but remains vaguely described; that text displays on the road is a “big part of what makes this thing work,” Murphy proclaims, but offers no rational; “I’m not talking content so much as narrative structure,” Murphy says of his new fiction-fuel, so what of other just as narratively capable mediums: film and radio, but videogames, especially, which in this world have spawned a population of “daylight-avoiding types?”
Despite these nagging questions, at its center Literature® sports a premise that’s certainly visually striking, with the promise of fiction-powered vehicles zooming down text-scrolling highways. In particular, characters’ habit of puffing Solace® and Spirituality® via mood-enhancing cigarettes works well to bolster the story’s noirish vibe.
It’s unfortunate then that such a clever conceit is hindered by an uneven pace of presentation. An exposition-laden opening works as a prologue of sorts, as Murphy free-associates uninterrupted about the vagaries of Old Art, the disillusion and capital ‘d’ Disaster that subsequently wrecked society, and the tech that has since empowered fiction’s commodification. Murphy’s ultimatum introduces a welcome sense of tension, but that soon deflates as Billy contemplates his predicament over coffee and eggs at his dinner-of-choice, then clocks in a solid day at the Herald. Then the pace picks up once more as a case of mistaken death leads to an actual death, and Billy finds himself truly on the run. From here, the intrigue only escalates, and the story climaxes strongly, with a thematically resonant reveal that’ll have readers re-thinking their reading of events.
Character, however, is where “Literature®” feels most disappointing. Flashback glimpses of Billy and Jane’s evolving relationship paint a too generic picture, as nondescript flirtation skips to a jealous night at a PhD graduation ceremony, to an uneventful dinner with the prospective in-laws. The same goes for Billy’s initial exposure to banned fiction; “[the books] burned the world,” we’re told, and joy poured forth as if on “tap,” but Stitch elaborates little as to why books ignite such revolutionary zeal in Vince, or what role they play for Billy and the way he interfaces with this world.
“Literature®” treads the wake of dystopian giants Orwell and Bradbury, and though creating no new wrinkles of its own, it offers a gleeful if sometimes clumsy frolic amid familiar tropes.
(Nineveh Editions, June 2018, pb, 102 pp.)
Reviewed by Robert L Turner III
Starting with a tour of a new transportation company, “Literature®” by Guillermo Stitch, places us in a world where literature and transportation have been melded and the Cog® drive fuels transportation. Billy, a reporter, is subbing in for a sick colleague and unintentionally gains the attention of Murphy, the CEO of the company Gripping Tails®. In this highly regimented world, only certain types of narratives can be used to power the roads, therefore the reading and writing of any deviant (effectively all) fiction is a crime. Billy soon finds himself suspected of transporting and reading fiction and has to go on the run, all while trying to navigate a broken relationship.
Stitch combines elements of Fahrenheit 451 with noir detective novels to create a world where technology and the mind meet. Because the Cog® drive is the new technology of the future, the need to control fictional writing becomes an issue of transportation safety. This connection proves interesting since it moves the justification for the repression of literature and imagination into a more concrete realm. Thus, Gilgamesh, the subversive literature promoter, is not just a thought criminal; he is a terrorist who has the ability to shut down the national infrastructure. The novella does suffer from a bit of hand-wavium as the reader needs to take on faith that the government is willing to incarcerate or kill anyone transporting, reading or writing fictional narratives.
There is a claustrophobic aspect to the world building that manages to make the reader feel as if the action takes place in a much smaller space than it actually does. Part of this is the limited number of characters, but part is in the description and world building. This feeds into the noir effect and fits well with the overall novella. Unfortunately, I did find the ending to be a bit rough. While I won’t include spoilers, the big reveal was obvious by the 2/3 mark of the novella and the ending was too pat to fit the overall tone of the work. “Literature®” is a good freshman outing for Stitch and has the potential to be expanded into a solid novel. I would recommend this piece to fans of old detective stories, those who like think pieces, and those who enjoy dystopian literature. I will keep an eye out for other works by this author.
Robert Turner is a Spanish professor at the University of South Dakota with a sideline in Science Fiction.