Book Review | Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest by Bryan Hurt

Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest by Bryan Hurt

Around the time that I read the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, I came across this article that he wrote about various ideas that informed the trilogy:

The Slow Apocalypse and Fiction

I offset the link to make it stand out because the article itself is a good read and worth a click. It contains enough literary criticism to give other works you might have read the new context. If you’ve read the Southern Reach Trilogy, or plan on picking up Vandermeer’s latest release, Borne, familiarizing yourself with the ideas in this article will assuredly improve your reading experience of his work.

Meanwhile, I bring up Vandermeer’s article in this review of Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest, because Vandermeer’s article discusses Timothy Morton’s idea of a hyperobject in a relevant way. Here is a brief description of a hyperobject:

[A hyperobject] is a way of using a word as an anchor for something that would be otherwise hard to picture in its entirety. For example, global warming can be considered as a hyperobject. Why? Because per Morton’s definition a hyperobject is something viscous (they stick — to your mind, to the environment) and nonlocal (local versions are manifestations or hauntings from afar). Hyperobjects have a unique temporality that renders them invisible to human beings for stretches of time and they exhibit effects through the interrelationship of objects that may not seem to be connected at first.

Even with just this bare context given, I hope it’s clear why the term is of use. Because a hyperobject is everywhere and nowhere — cannot really be held in one place by the human brain — reaction to it by the human world is often inefficient or wrong or even directly antithetical to the stated objective. For one thing, we are unable to hold in our minds the necessary number of variables and the connections between those variables; thus immobilized, sometimes also misled by disinformation, we rationalize or compartmentalize. In a sense, the enormity of the situation renders us irrational, could also be said to act as an invading agent or alien presence in our thoughts that destroys the impulse toward necessary autonomous action.

Like any good “science” hating conservative, I should point out that one should be careful when it comes to engaging with ideas and concepts – things like “hyperobjects” – that seemed to have been forged in the deepest, darkest corners of the desperate, elitist minds of climate change alarmists. However, I’m giving Vandermeer and his ilk a pass this time, because this idea of a hyperobject provides a useful framework for understanding the growing surveillance state (full disclosure since tongue-in-cheek sarcasm doesn’t always come through in writing: I actually like science. I also like Vandermeer and his work, but the verdict is still out on his ilk).

The surveillance state is viscous. The bits and data that increasingly determine who or what we are increasingly being recorded and saved through cadres of devices and networks, and they seem to follow us around. The surveillance state that largely exists in a distant-yet-always-present “cloud” is nonlocal. The surveillance state is everywhere and nowhere. It is incomprehensible. We don’t know how to react to it, yet it informs so much of what we do.

Now, when I define surveillance state as a hyperobject, I am not just talking about NSA data centers in Utah – although those are part of it. I’m talking about the vast apparatus that humans have designed to monitor and track ourselves and each other. Aside from state-sponsored surveillance, this could include everything from monitoring commercial activity and internet browsing, to religious institutions that have made confession a large part of keeping an omniscient god apprised of our actions, to even things like the institution of the family which is defined as much by biological relationship as it is by the extent to which members of a family unit know intimate details about one another. Surveillance culture has been with us for a long time, and it’s not going anywhere. If anything has changed in the 21st century it is our exponentially growing capability to surveil anything and everything.

Furthermore, as someone who has been on the front lines of recent battles over privacy and surveillance in Washington D.C., I believe it is safe to say that our culture is “immobilized,” and sometimes we are “misled by disinformation, we rationalize or compartmentalize.” I can’t say for sure if recognizing and acting on the “impulse toward necessary autonomous action” is the light at the end of the tunnel towards which we must strive, but the ability to act autonomously as a free agent is certainly in the table stakes of the gamble we are making with our unprecedented expansion of the surveillance state. These are high stakes, so our surveillance culture is something we should be giving a lot more thought to.

On that note, Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest is a collection of short stories based on the theme of surveillance. Bryan Hurt compiled the stories, and he put together quite the collection. When putting it together he didn’t give much guidance to the contributors. He wanted to see the range of what he would get. He got a lot of good stuff, and in doing so he put together a collection of stories that will help you understand the hyperobject of the surveillance state like nothing else will.

In other words, there are some intellectual endeavors that can only be accomplished by reading very good fiction. Once you’ve decided you want to embark on one of these endeavors where only fiction will do the trick, the next step is to decide which medium will deliver the most bang for the buck. More often than not readers and writers of fiction settle on novels as the best medium. In this case of trying to come to terms with the hyperobject of the surveillance state, no novel could accomplish what this collection of stories did.

Aside from giving a wide variety of perspectives and voices a platform, a short story collection also gives one the luxury of picking and choosing how much of they want to read. I skipped over 2-3 of the stories that just didn’t pull me in, but the vast majority of them were great reads. I don’t want to give too many of them away since part of the fun of reading a collection like this is the surprise of what’s coming next.

There were a few stories that stuck with me though that I would like to highlight. The first one was the “Relive Box.” This is a story about a console that allows one to experience past moments of your life through virtual reality. The story places us in the midst of a societal breakdown where people are becoming addicted to consuming their own past. If you’ve ever been in a room of people that should otherwise be socializing but they’re consumed by their electronic devices, this story will haunt you in those moments. You’ll see these people – and yourself when you’re guilty of such behavior – for what they are: Narcissus staring at a self-reflection. Aside from an examination of technologically enabled narcissism, the story also gets one thinking about nostalgia, free will, and the rarely realized beauty of forgetfulness. This is a story that hits above its weight and probably hits above the weight of most novels.

The second story that has stuck is “Testimony of Malik, Israeli Agent, Prisoner #287690” by Randa Jarrar. From the title I expected to read a post 9/11 story about Arab subjugation by some Mossad-like state actor. It turns out it’s a story about a kestrel that is captured by Israeli scientists and fitted with a device around the leg designed to track behavior. I loved this story because of all the stories in the collection it did the best job of portraying the eco-surveillance state that is on the verge of exploding. Of all the state-sponsored surveillance state apparatuses that could be will likely be built, the eco-surveillance state is probably the most alarming. When you combine the aggressive rigidity of the current environmentalist legal regime, with the rarely-questioned moral authority of the environmental movement, with rapidly expanding surveillance capability you get a recipe for disaster. For this reason, any work that critiques the eco-surveillance state is worth some attention.

That being said, I’m the guy who caught a toad last summer, fed it bugs caught by my porch light every night, and before releasing it actually looked up amphibian tracking devices to see if there were any consumer-grade devices I could fix to the toad. I wanted to see where the little guy went. I wanted to see the size of his range. I wanted to see when he hibernated and when he came out in the spring. Alas, amphibian tracking devices are only sold to “researchers,” so I didn’t end up tracking the toad.

However, in the course of my search I found an app called Animal Tracker that I installed on my phone. It let’s you track a growing community of migrating birds around the world. After browsing the app I came across a turkey vulture named Edward Abbey that spends summers in Arizona near Sonora National Monument. The vulture winters in El Salvador. After watching the app’s recreation of Edward Abbey’s annual migration paths, it wasn’t long before I started plotting out a short story in my head about a drug cartel operative in El Salvador using turkey vultures to transport narcotics to el norte as a side hustle until he gets caught, then things go downhill for the operative and the vulture. It would be kind of like Cormac McCarthy meets Breaking Bad meets Edward Abbey. One day I’ll write that story, now that I know that stories about birds with tracking devices on them that can be used for nefarious purposes can be good.

     

The third story that stuck with me was “Our New Neighborhood” by Lincoln Michel. Any of the millions of Americans who have ever been terrorized by an HOA will find that this story really resonates. Most modern homeowners associations make King George III look like Ron Paul. If the Founding Fathers knew that the country they founded would one day be overrun with a form of tyranny as insidious as the modern HOA, I believe they would have included an amendment to the Constitution to prevent HOAs from ever being formed. I’m grateful that Lincoln Michel recognized this immutable and enduring truth about the corruptibility of HOAs and made a great story out of the premise.

That’s as far as I am going to go with discussing the individual stories, but hopefully, that gives you an idea of the range of ideas that can be explored under the simple theme of “surveillance.”


Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest Book Cover Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest
Bryan Hurt
Science Fiction
Catapult
May 10, 2016
512

In Watchlist, some of today’s most prominent and promising fiction writers from around the globe respond to, meditate on, and mine for inspiration the surveillance culture in which we live. With contributions from Etgar Keret, T.C. Boyle, Robert Coover, Aimee Bender, Jim Shepard, Alissa Nutting, Charles Yu, Cory Doctorow, and many more, WATCHLIST unforgettably confronts the question: What does it mean to be watched?

In Doctorow’s eerily plausible "Scroogled," the US has outsourced border control to Google, on the basis that they Do Search Right. In Lincoln Michel’s “Our New Neighborhood,” a planned suburban community’s ‘Neighborhood Watch’ program becomes an obsessive nightmare. Jim Shepard’s haunting “Safety Tips for Living Alone” imagines the lives of the men involved in the US government’s fatal attempt to build the three Texas Tower radar facilities in the Atlantic Ocean during the Cold War. Randa Jarrar’s “Testimony of Malik, Israeli agent #287690” is “a sweet and deftly handled story of xenophobia and paranoia, reminding us that such things aren’t limited to the West” (Sabotage Reviews) and Alissa Nutting’s “The Transparency Project” is a creative, speculative exploration of the future of long-term medical observation.

By turns political, apolitical, cautionary, and surreal, these stories reflect on what it’s like to live in the surveillance state.