Friday, July 8, 2016

Review of Zero K by Don Delillo

Futurology (not to be confused with Futurism) is certainly an aspect of modern/post-modern “civilization.” More rationale than mysticism, it predicts the future from science rather than the yarrow sticks and tea dregs. And yet there remain similarities. Vernor Vinge’s Singularity proclamations have given rise to futuristic visions wherein the line between magic and science is obliterated. And in the metamodern world, the practice continues—science thisclose to providing a utopia for many. In the context of growing populations, environmental issues, social unrest, changing job markets, rapid technological growth, and a variety of other issues, the human psyche has created a variety of expectations for this science—how to correct, how to mititgate, how to escape, how to exist in what remains of the 21st century and beyond? Capturing the equivocalness inherent to thoughts on mortality/immortality which result, Don Delillo’s 2016 Zero K is as tangible as it is futuristic.

Where Vinge’s Singularity has seen science pushed toward fantasy, Zero K pushes science toward religion. (Similar, but not exactly the same.) Jeffrey Lockhart is the son of a multi-millionaire. His father has invested huge amounts of money in a remotely located cryogenics/nanotech facility called Convergence where the world’s rich can go to have themselves preserved should technology ever advance to the point to revive them. Visiting his father at the facility to see his stepmother “inducted,” Jeffery comes face to face with the cult nature of Convergence—science spun into faith until it’s too difficult to see the difference. Having trouble coming to terms with his own affected existence dealing with the reality of his step-mother and father’s choices, his experience at the facility culminates in a worldview he never saw coming.

Spare and austere, Delillo’s prose evokes a mood of distance, of abstract existence that perfectly complements life inside Convergence as well as Jeffrey’s issues with perspective. Zero K an obvious reference to the temperature at which molecular and cellular activity ceases, and mistakenly thought to be the temperature at which bodies are cryogenically frozen, the title likewise refers to aspects of existentialism—of being seemingly frozen in place while the world spins around you—the novel is obviously addressing. Title and prose together foreshadow and ground the narrative’s agenda, which leads to:

For certain, Camus and Sarte (even a little Huxley) linger on the chilly wings of Zero K. Jeffrey Lockhart perpetually unable to cross the line—to step into uninhibited existence, his experience with the logical absurdity of Convergence as well as happenstances in his personal life serve to prevent him from being fully participant to the moment. Delillo nicely outlaying Convergence and its views, Lockhart is caught tentatively on its hooks, all the while being pulled the other direction by employment and relationships—the minute, edgy details of quotidian existence. Though I do understand where some might think Convergence to be James Bond evil, for sure there are enough scientists being published today with more than one foot in the realm of the non-empirical to give it a backbone. Delillo aware, he plays their rhetoric off existential concerns to a chilly melody.

Filled with subtly haunting scenes and a sustained reservation , Zero K is a novel that delicately employs tropes of science fiction to tell the story of a middle-aged man dealing with life’s ontological quandaries. A handful of other strong themes visible (modern dislocation and isolation, media content, mortality, techno-fantasies. Infused with sharp social observation, a mood like concrete whose sheer weight steadily pushes the narrative forward, and a finger or two on the pulse of 21st century existence, it may not be Delillo’s greatest novel, but certainly more significant than the majority of genre novels deploying similar tropes.

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