1984 for the 21st Century

by Robinson L

Robinson L peers into the bleak depths of a Chinese dystopian sci-fi tale.
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I’m not sure if we’ve ever devoted an entire review to a lone novelette on this site before, but if not, then Bao Shu’s Everybody Loves Charles is worth setting the precedent. After netting several prestigious Chinese Science Fiction Awards, Everybody Loves Charles was translated into English by Ken Liu—who also translated Liu Cixin’s 2015 Hugo Award-winner, The Three Body Problem, and its two sequels—and published in Clarke’s World Magazine in January, 2016.

The titular Charles Mann is a celebrity novelist and aviator, just coming off yet another racing victory. He’s also the poster boy for a relatively new technology called livecasting, which Bao Shu is a sophisticated enough sci-fi author to make sound absolutely plausible to this neophyte’s ear, but said neophyte is sadly too ignorant to summarize. To grossly oversimplify, Charles has some implants which transmit all his sensory information out into the ether, and people with another set of implants and a headset are able to receive those transmissions and experience everything that Charles experiences virtually in real time. It’s mentioned that over a billion people have the requisite cranial implants already.

When Charles begins courting Japanese police officer Hosokawa Homi[1], she challenges him to try turning off the livecasting for more than a few minutes. He acquiesces, and slowly begins to find his whole perception of the world changing.

Meanwhile, Takumi Naoto is one of Charles’ devoted followers, to the point where he thinks of his time in Charles’ head as his “real” life, and his actual life as nuisance he has to put up with. But a co-worker, Asakura Minami, who seems to have an interest in Naoto, seizes the opportunity of Charles going off-line to take him out to the park. Can his growing connection to Minami convince Naoto to begin living his own life, or will he slip back into his virtual existence as Charles?

At first, I thought this story was going to be a small stakes love story, with the A plot being Naoto breaking out of his hokikomori lifestyle and starting a new life with Minami; and Charles and his travails and his relationship with Homi as the B plot. And to be honest, I thought it was going to be a tolerable but unremarkable and not terribly interesting story.

If that were the case, I wouldn’t be writing this review. However, there’s a plot twist midway through, which sent the narrative off in a completely different and more chilling direction. What follows is a gripping, if very bleak, story of conspiracy and espionage. I can’t unequivocally recommend it, because as I said it’s very bleak, but it’s also an intense read, and if you’re thinking you might want to check it out and don’t want to spoil the reveal for yourself, I suggest you stop reading now, because the rest of this review contains massive spoilers.

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Okay, if you’re reading this part, I assume you’ve either read the story, or you don’t mind spoilers. So, anyway, the plot twist comes during a scene between Charles and Homi; they’ve been dating for several weeks, and at her instigation, Charles has been livecasting less and less often, much to the frustration of his manager, Lisa Goldstone. Then, in the middle of an ordinary conversation, Charles finds himself reaching out and slapping his girlfriend, then shouting at her to leave.

Homi gives him a good kick on her way out, and before he’s fully recovered, Lisa walks into the room and explains the whole horrible plan.

The livecasting technology, it turns out, is not just a way to share sensory information among human beings. Lisa’s people literally took over Charles’ body to make him drive Homi away. The technology is currently in its infancy, but:
“As we improve and perfect the technology for translating and transmitting neural patterns, millions more—billions—will join the livecasting revolution, and they won’t be able to stop. In the not too distant future, I’m certain we can enable the transmission and reception of more complicated senses and emotions, or even fully formed thoughts. No one can predict how far the technology will ultimately develop, but this is surely the beginning of a true singularity.[2] The traditional life of an individual will be swept away, replaced by a new world we have yet to imagine.”
Considering the author is a huge fan of Cixin’s Three Body trilogy—to the point of writing a sequel, Three Body X, which was published with Cixin’s blessing—I have to wonder if, like me, Bao Shu was frustrated by the treatment of the Mental Seal technology in the second book, The Dark Forest. Neuroscientists uncover the secret to mind control, and the reaction of humanity’s ruling elites is shock and horror rather than “We gotta get our hands on some of that”? I don’t think so.

In this scene, Lisa also denies that any one person or group is the ultimate power behind the livecasting technology, instead listing off half a dozen of the organizations who are invested in it. “If you insist on identifying a puppeteer, it’s neither the US government nor Wall Street—it’s capital itself.”

Criticizing a socio-political-economic system, like capitalism, is difficult in fiction, because—unlike a dictatorship—there isn’t a single center of power onto which you can slap the face of a politician or CEO as an embodiment of the injustice you’re criticizing. Generally, works that try to denounce the capitalist system as a whole only manage to criticize a specific aspect or manifestation[3]. In a single paragraph, Everybody Loves Charles does a better job than most at condemning the whole system; though admittedly, it has the advantage of not having to provide the protagonists a final boss to defeat, because this isn’t that kind of story.

Anyway, Charles manages to break temporarily free of Lisa’s clutches with the help of a returned Homi, and they’re about to blow the whole story to the media, when one of Lisa’s associates approaches Charles, threatening to send “chaotic signals” to every person with the cranial implants.
Most will at least suffer temporary psychosis, and some may become deranged permanently. Who knows how many accidents will occur as a result, and maybe a few choice subjects will push the buttons for launching nuclear missiles … The world will be turned upside down in a catastrophe that will make a world war seem like child’s play.
Realizing he’s been outmaneuvered, Charles makes a move to warm Arthur’s heart, and caves. In a bit of quick thinking, he announces his intention to participate in the upcoming Plutonian Grand Race, which will have him away from Earth for the better part of two years. This gives him an obvious excuse to quit livecasting for a while, and by the time he gets back Lisa’s people will have found some other poster child to advance their world domination schemes. Of course, Charles makes sure to leave a full record of the evidence of the plot with Homi, to be released to the public should anything suspicious happen to him.

At Charles’ launch party, Minami comes up to Charles and proclaims her love for Naoto, whom she knows is always plugged into Charles’ livecasts. A happy ending, of sorts.

… Then comes the epilogue, set one year later, when the world learns that Charles Mann passed away when his ship malfunctioned and crashed into Pluto. We’re also informed that Homi perished in a tragic air car accident three days later, and this fact is cited by the people claiming—with little hard evidence—that Charles was, in fact, murdered. Rumors that he and Homi were not only murdered, but as the cover up to a mass mind control conspiracy involving the cranial implants, are dismissed as the conspiracy theories they so closely resemble.

The story pulls out all the stops on this downer ending, with Naoto breaking up with Minami to slip back into his livecast addiction, and one final, massively cynical dick move flourish from the villains.

It’s not quite a completely downer ending for two of the characters, though. Minami is left heartbroken, but Naoto never struck me as great boyfriend material, anyway—the story doesn’t explore this angle at all, but it’s reasonable to imagine she gets over him and goes on to find someone else.

And yes, Charles is dead, but his rival, George Steele, only found his remains when he arrived at Pluto himself, two days later, meaning Charles won the race. This is more significant than it may at first sound: as part of the big reveal, Lisa sought to break Charles by claiming her group’s intervention was the only thing that ever made him a celebrity. She explains that his novels were all authored by a no name ghost writer they put on retainer, and points out that all his races were won because he had the most expensive and advanced racing craft. So in setting up for the Grand Race, Charles refused a donation of cutting edge equipment in favor of standard gear and a stripped down craft, because “I used to rely too much on technology. This time, I want to win by skill.” The epilogue makes clear that his efforts paid off, and he died proving himself at least partially worthy of the accolades he received in life.

Still, there’s no denying this is an incredibly grim ending, which isn’t my favorite, but I can’t fault the story for it. My main complaint is that as far as I’m concerned, the true downer ending comes when Charles and Homi fail to thwart Lisa’s plot and surrender the human race to her employers’ eventual domination. After that defeat, the extended conclusion and epilogue felt like afterthoughts.

Perhaps if the characters were more compelling, I would be more concerned about their personal fates than about that of humanity in general in this story. But while the characters are adequate for their purpose, they’re less gripping for me than the plot.

These flaws and personal reservations notwithstanding, Everybody Loves Charles is an excellent story in the way it sets up its world and its characters and then drives them inexorably to their doom. Not knowing the twist definitely enhanced the experience, but if you’re interested in this kind of story, it’s worth a read or a listen even with the twist spoiled.

[1]And when I say “courting,” I mean he strong-arms her into going out with him using his celebrity status to get her superiors to pressure Homi to acquiesce. For a minute, I thought Charles was supposed to be a shitbag celebrity, and the story was going to dramatize how celebrity culture facilitates people like him harassing and abusing others. Would’ve been downright prescient, given the infamous CNN clip of then Presidential candidate Tr*mp bragging about his ability to get away with sexual abuse, and his subsequent electoral college victory. I was a little disappointed to find Charles really is the story’s hero; Homi falls for him once he goes to livecasting only intermittently, and his high handed tactics in first coercing her to go out with him were apparently supposed to be charming.
[2]As an aside, I love this brutally cynical deconstruction of “the Singularity” as something that would just give groups who are already obscenely rich and powerful the opportunity to completely dominate the rest of humanity.
[3]Or they go the ultra heavy-handed route, as seen in, e.g. the 2017 Doctor Who episode Oxygen, which while I agreed with the message, laid the social commentary on really thick.
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 10:39 on 2017-10-03
I contemplated whether or not to put this one in the Halloweenpalooza daily article grind but then realised that the entire concept is about wearing other people's lives like a costume, so there's that. :)
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