It’s a relief, sometimes, to read science fiction that is a straightforward political allegory. Tolkien’s famous “cordial dislike” for allegory is good guidance for creating believable, durable fantastic worlds, but there’s also a space and a need for works that have their sights set on current issues: less perennial, perhaps, but no less pertinent. Mat Johnson’s Invisible Things, a dark comedy about the politics of alien abductees, is a welcome addition in the tradition of speculative satirists such as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Margaret Atwood, James Morrow, and T.C. Boyle.
Set in a future so near it’s pretty much the present, Invisible Things begins with a group of astronauts exploring the moons of Jupiter and making an astonishing discovery: an entire city that’s not only human, but American, complete with chain stores and suburban McMansions. Mysteriously transported inside the habitat, the crew learns that New Roanoke is made of people abducted over the centuries, and that it’s taboo to even mention the otherworldly forces maintaining their society. Attempts to escape are complicated by an inept rescue mission from Earth, mysterious alien interventions, and, above all, by the fact that the dominant human factions on New Roanoke don’t want to leave.
It’s a pointed allegory, but Johnson keeps his targets, and thus his solutions, somewhat nebulous. It’s not that the titular “invisible things” are simply capitalism or right-wing kyriarchy, one-to-one, but they are—blatantly—a stand-in for systems of control, both cryptic and omnipresent. The specific struggles are all-too familiar: corporate control of the media, voter disenfranchisement, and societal inertia even in the face of massive, obvious problems.
If you’re looking for a technical, science-rich exploration of space travel and colonization in the Jovian satellites: I hear you, that sounds great. But Invisible Things isn’t that book. Despite the science-fictional scenario (and a few tongue-in-cheek references, like the spaceships Delany and Ursula), Johnson is not here for the nuts and bolts, or to walk us around Europa. This is a story—a satire, even—about society; the plot, humor, and commentary revolve around social rather than cosmological findings, with pointed digs at centrism, neoliberalism, and the parallels between the abductee civilization and the descendants of slavery.
At under 300 pages, Invisible Things feels tightly paced—which is impressive, given that the extra-terrestrial setting quickly gives way to a mix of social observation and political maneuvering. It’s not a particularly character-driven novel, it must be said. Nalini Jackson, the primary character, is a good viewpoint—her sociological skills and theories shape the novel’s portrayal of New Roanoke and the Party of the People fighting to escape it—but she doesn’t really have space to develop. Likewise, the oddball supporting cast are distinct enough, but they’re quite flat.
Johnson has much more of a flair for describing his buffoonish antagonists. Nalini meets the hapless Vice Deputy Chairman Brett Cole at a McDonald’s and describes him as “pasty and pale and soft and yet somewhat pleasant, just like her chicken nuggets.” Bob Seaford, spaceship commander turned New Roanoke collaborator, is as close as the novel gets to a genuine villain, and is really well-done: an infuriating and highly believable example of the competent incompetent, a self-deluding minor bully whose one skill is an instinctive and unfailing ability to discern and climb whatever social ladder is closest to hand, to follow the unwritten rules of every situation as exactly and as self-servingly as possible. In the immediate aftermath of a highly-publicized attack of the invisible aliens, Bob declares, despite his own injuries, that “There’s no such things as those things! But there are true patriots!”
It’s a clear echo of the “most essential command” from 1984: “reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.” Orwell’s dystopian vision, 75 years ago, was framed in literal brainwashing and comprehensive information control, a paranoid erosion of truth. The simple insanity of Bob’s confident counterfactuality is better suited to our times. The condition of our actual world, and people’s bizarre acceptance of it, is already so absurd that depicting it has a certain black humor; the challenge is to do so without resorting to mean-spirited crudeness or despair. A lot of the “funniest” moments in Invisible Things are also the bleakest, the least fanciful. Though tonally quite different, the novel calls to mind Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up in the way it’s hard to know how to respond when we, as a society, can’t seem to acknowledge or act on big obvious problems. Don’t look up. There are no invisible things.
One part of Johnson’s solution—or his characters’, anyway—is just to name the problem, despite all the pressures not to. That’s important, but feels naive given how otherwise world-savvy the novel reads. More inspiring, more powerful, and more needed is the way collective action is portrayed as critical to making positive revolutionary change: Nalini’s work with the Party of the People is a clear-eyed vision of a coalition who know the stakes and what they’re up against, and the novel’s final act is a testament to what’s possible when enough of the population can see and act on what’s necessary. Quippily insightful and darkly absurd, Invisible Things is most hopeful right when its horrors are most on display.
By Mat Johnson
June 28, 2022
Appalachian in the big city. Bookseller, specialty coffee pro, SF scholar.