Podcast listeners may recognize Kurt Andersen’s name from the popular Studio 360 podcast, from NPR, but did you also know he recently published a speculative fiction novel? True Believers takes place a few years in the future, where Karen Hollander, a woman who was in college in the 1960s contrasts her life as a 60s radical to that of her granddaughter Waverly, a teenager involved in occupy-style protests against the G20.
The parts set in the future are well observed. Too often when writing about the near future, authors make the world too different to make such extreme change in society and technology believable. The nice thing about the future world we see in glimpses in True Believers is how slyly changes are introduced. At first it seems like we are in the present, but then things like ankle bracelets that monitor a runner’s health, robots that do small assistive tasks for elderly people, and people that live a little longer than most people do now are introduced. Every technology we see in the depiction of the near future is a technology or trend that already exists but is currently too expensive to be widely available or still in the beta testing phase. It was clear the author did plenty of research on future trends, which was much appreciated by this reviewer.
Still, for my money the most intriguing parts of True Believers were the parts about the 60s. I think True Believers is as real a slice of the 60s as I’m ever likely to get without travelling back in time. Andersen really made the decade and young people’s concerns of the time really come alive. There are many little details that he also points out that help explain why certain aspects of our society, such as awareness of news events in foreign lands by the public have changed so much in the intervening years. For example, how many of you realized that back in the late 1960s the news was only 15 minutes long? Now we have horrors from all over the globe streaming at us 24/7 on CNN and news programs run for an hour.
As someone who protested the Iraq war in university, lived in the United States during the invasion and owned a bumper sticker that read “Bush + Dick = America gets fucked”, I always felt both inspired by the 60’s radicals and surprised by their occasional naievete and arrogance. I read American Pastoral by Phillip Roth and despite his talent as a novelist, thought he totally missed the boat in his portrayal of a 60s radical. However, I suppose he is of a generation that was already past drafting age during the Vietnam War, and his view of what happened during that time shows the befuddlement of that older generation that really didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
The one aspect of True Believers that I thought could have been dealt with better was the Occupy protests. Because that moment in history is seen through Waverly’s eyes and Waverly is still just a teenager, her and her friends’ involvement in the protests is seen more as rich kids dabbling in activism. The actual problems the Occupy protests were against aren’t explained so we never see the justification for the protests. Perhaps it was indeed the unfocused, impotent protest it is depicted as in the novel but the problems of the out of control banking systems around the world were very real and they mainly affected young, working age people, a few years older than Waverly and her protester friends.
Some of Karen’s attitudes to the modern world betray a common complacency to the problems facing young working people by the older baby boomer generation. In the novel she practices the interesting thought exercise of her college self from the 1960s would make of our modern era. She concludes that she would be surprised that it all turned out fine and that the new generation is much luckier because we have access to tons of data and books through the internet, equal rights and legalized abortion. Personally, I think she kind of missed the boat there. Our world might look fine to a college kid from the 1960s, but if she had to really live in our world and by that I mean work in our world, with a bachelor’s degree in arts, she would have no prospects. Most people over the age of 50 in our current workforce would never have been able to get the jobs they have now with the level of education they were required to attain back then. There are so many more people now and so much more competition. Back then, people like Karen could make mistakes and do drugs and still get into the best universities and enter a workplace with plenty of jobs for the taking. Now the competition is fierce beyond belief.
The modern job crisis is a problem of demographics. There is a large population of over 50s who are still healthy and can work well into their 70s, taking jobs that previously would have been vacated by retirees. Also, now there are robots on assembly lines doing much of the work previously performed by industrial workers and companies fleeing developed countries to manufacture goods in places where workers have fewer rights and they can pay them poorly. These are three of the many reasons why jobs for people my age have dried up and wages have stagnated, while the price of goods keeps increasing. No one can afford to live on a single salary anymore and everyone is working part-time, contract jobs with no job security. Immigration from Canada to other countries for employment is made more difficult as previously open countries like the U.S. and U.K. try to pull up the gangway and save jobs for their own citizens, while claiming it is in order to keep dangerous security threats out. The harder it is for people to immigrate legally, the more illegal immigrants multiply, forcing wages down even more.
We have a lot, it is true. We are lucky that starvation and infectious disease aren’t the scourges they were in my grandparents’ time. Through modern birth control methods we can prevent ourselves from having children we can’t afford to care for. The poor in Canada and the U.S. are certainly not as unfortunate as the poor in the developing world.
But we don’t live in the developing world. We compare ourselves to the people we see around us, to our peers, parents and our grandparents. The truth is, when my parents were my age, they both had lucrative full time jobs, a house in the suburbs on a huge parcel of land, three children and a full-time nanny whose salary they paid for. They could even afford to go on vacation to Florida and my Mom could take time off when she had a child.
This is what irks our generation. That we were lead to expect the things our parents had and better, were encouraged to strive in school to be the best, to excel despite greater competition than they ever faced and in the end all we get is the door slammed in our face. We are denied an active, employed role to partake in our society and given Happy Meals and Facebook instead.
What Karen Hollander doesn’t understand is what made us take to the streets to begin with. It was a protest to raise awareness of what was going on; against the bankers who helped engineer the current economic crisis just to make profit for themselves risking the hard earned money of their customers and the government that let the bankers loosen the banking laws for sizable campaign contributions. But the bankers were allowed to escape all responsibility for their actions, letting the poor and middle class lose their money, while they retired with golden parachutes or moved on to high paying salaries in other companies. The arrogance of those people who just keep taking more and more of the pie through wild speculation, while young, middle class people get fewer jobs, while spending more to educate themselves than ever, putting themselves further in debt for nothing is what the anger of our generation is all about. Whether we are spoiled or not, the shortcoming of reality vs. what we were promised is part of that disillusionment and anger.
In short, I was somewhat miffed that she could elucidate the full reasons for the protests of the 1960s in the book, but portray the current wave of protests as nothing more than children playing at being radicals with no solid reason why.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!