THE RESISTERS by Gish Jen (Knopf, 320 pp., $26.95)
For all the fanfare about a new golden age brought gloriously to life by computers, digital technology and artificial intelligence, skeptics — or are they realists? — prefer to warn us about a totalitarian rule of unprecedented power. And the chatter is not just among political pundits. Writers have raised the alarm, too.
In just the past few years, novelists as diverse as Margaret Atwood, John Lanchester, Louise Erdrich and Caleb Crain have published chronicles of dystopia that should send shudders through anyone with eyes to see.
Up to now, Gish Jen’s fiction has had a different focus: the American experiment as it is being expanded and reinvented by immigrants, primarily Chinese Americans. Beginning with “Typical American’ in 1991 and “Mona in the Promised Land” in 1996, she brought a refreshing sense of comedy to the bewilderment and confusions inevitable with arrival in a strange new land. Later works, such as “The Love Wife” and “World and Town,” not only took on a more sober tone, but also widened the cast of characters. As Jen noted to interviewers, she wished to re-envision the immigrant experience as central to the national experience. It wasn’t marginal, you see, but the norm, and always has been.
Now, with “The Resisters,” Jen has joined the Cassandra chorus. This is a dark, frightening and triumphantly original work, a “1984” for our time. It’s the author’s brilliant decision to pit the delights of the All-American pastime, baseball, as antidote to the rigors of the surveillance state. Pleasure versus pain, leisure versus labor, freedom versus regimentation.
In Jen’s dystopia, set in the not-too-distant future, the ruling regime remains out of sight. Instead, we see a society divided into The Netted, who agree to play by predetermined rules, and The Surplus, whom automation has driven out of jobs and into pariah status.
The Netted, who are given economic advantages, aren’t aware that the state is always watching, via chips implanted in their brains. The Surplus, fed on government food tainted with brain-diminishing chemicals, don’t have to guess about surveillance. Even their houses talk to them, offering advice and barely veiled threats: “I’m here … I want to hear everything,” says the AI-internet device in the walls that Gen’s protagonist family calls Aunt Nettie.
The Cannon-Chastenets represent an America transformed by immigration. Eleanor, a human-rights lawyer with Chinese-European roots, has endured prison and torture. Her husband, Grant, who hails from the Caribbean, uses his technical skills to enable sneaky end runs around the eyes and ears of Big Brother. Their only child, Gwen, a baseball phenom, can pitch with the wiliness of a Jacob deGrom.
Gwen just might be the ticket to Crossing Over to Netted status. Her performance on a coed team is so superlative that the powers-that-be urge her to apply to Net U. so she can play for its team.
But will this choice require selling out her family’s values? Is this offer a ploy to lure Eleanor into a trap that will get her Cast Off, dispatched into the open ocean with no hope of survival? If she enrolls, will she be able to trust any fellow students, not to mention Coach Woody, who claims to have her best interests at heart?
As a child, Jen writes, Gwen was “an embodiment of that tornado that is girlhood — that glorious whirlwind of silliness and sophistication that seems to dance and spin and touch down exactly where it likes.” It's an apt description of Jen’s writing, perfectly nimble and precise, with just a dollop of humor. (Some pitchers in the story bear the names of Righty Grove and Ichiro Mariner.)
Jen’s terse sentences and short scenes create an irresistible forward momentum. Her dialogue veers from witty (the family) to eerie (the robotic watchers and a few robotic humans) to shamefully naive (Net U. students) By contrast, she makes the Cannon-Chastenets into believable, fully rounded characters. And genuine heroes. Eleanor likes to quote Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech while Gwen’s quietly seditious “I would prefer not to,” echoes Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”
This vision of Netted and Surplus — micromanaged by AI-powered FridgeStockers, KidTrackers, ElderHelpers, YardBots and the like, designed to disguise surveillance under cover of convenience — is imagined with fidelity to what is technologically possible. Don’t dare call this fantasy or science fiction. This is a world all too terrifying, dangerous and real.