I’ve stopped reading general dystopian fiction; so much of it is merely a rehash of what has come before: plagues devastating civilization, primitive survival, often intertwined with lawlessness, environmental catastrophe. Even if the stories are well written, it’s a simple case of been there, done that. And that. And that, yet again.
Then along comes M. T. Anderson, and like he’s done so often (Feed, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad), he takes something static and makes it fresh and therefore startling – not by increasing the outrageousness, but by making it even more familiar, allowing the reader to actively relate to the circumstances of the story, and its characters.
And so it is with Landscape with Invisible Hand, the story of Adam Costello, a normal American suburban kid – until the aliens come. But these aliens, the vuvv, don’t come to invade, infiltrate or colonize. They come to invite our world into a business partnership.
We couldn’t believe our luck when they offered us their tech and invited us to be part of their Interspecies Co-Prosperity Alliance. They announced that they could end all work forever and cure all disease, so of course, the leaders of the world all rushed to sign up.
Still, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and such is the case with the vuvv – not because they don’t live up to their end of the bargain, or because they misrepresented themselves or took obvious advantage of humanity. Instead, the sudden, foreign change brings about such an abrupt shift in our economic structure that society is thrown drastically out of balance.
Adam and his family are caught up in the turmoil, trying valiantly to stay afloat and maintain some normality when all the rules around them are changing, yet utterly unable to escape the abyss widening between the haves and the have-nots.
Fortunately, Adam has an outlet in his art. What started as an affinity for creating realistic video game landscapes has developed into working with more tactile media: pencil, charcoal, paint. Eschewing the still lifes and realism that are favored by the culturally philanthropic vuvv in their artistic procurements, Adam paints what he sees: emptiness, hopelessness, and dreamy snapshots of the manic, desperate world that surrounds him. But when entry into a vuvv-sponsored art contest promises to open up literally new worlds of opportunity, Adam must decide what it really means to stay true to oneself.
Landscape with Invisible Hand is a deceptively slight book that reads easily yet resonates deeply. Adam’s voice is like so many other kids’, yet what he has to deal with, and what he has come to accept as normal, is deeply disturbing. Still, this is what M. T. Anderson does so well – taking complex issues and treating them as just another part of life – and in doing so, he has managed to make a tale of future dystopia both ordinary and terrifying. Highly, highly recommended.