In the future, your misery powers the world in this love story, road trip gone noir.
It was as if I were both the fever-dreamer and the dream itself.
If you were paying attention in 2009 you may have seen the birthing of Forecast across the internet, from July to December, in forty-two installments. Billed as the Forecast 42 Project, this story is set in the year 2212, and is the bastard love-child of Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick, weaving elements of noir and science fiction into a humorous, touching love story, a narrative on what it means to see and be seen, to exist and yet be nothing more than a cog. Following this story across such esteemed online journals as Juked, Flatmancrooked, Keyhole, Redivider, Opium, Electric Literature, PANK, Word Riot, 3:AM Magazine, and Puerto Del Sol, it was a serial story that ended up landing Shya Scanlon a book deal at Flatmancrooked Publishing, giving hopes to many authors that the ways we publish, and get discovered, aren’t static and predictable.
Forecast is the story of Zara, a woman who evolves (or devolves) into Helen, changing from a spirited, independent girl, into a Stepford wife, her life a dull suburban waste, married to Jack, an oblivious idiot, undeserving of her spirit. Watching over this is Maxwell Point, a Citizen Surveillant, a man who loses himself in the process of watching her, both an essential, and irrelevant, part of her life. There is of course the talking dog, Rocket, who often provides comic relief. There is Asseem, her rebellious boyfriend, CEO of Street Cred, Inc. There is the split personality of Blain/Busy, who may be more than he seems, good cop, bad cop, all in one body. Or is it two? Her parents, the professor, Knuckle and his Dirty Dogs fast food chain, it’s a full cast of miscreants and prophets, players and pawns. And this all takes place in Seattle, where in this possible future, electricity is gone, power created by negative energy, farmed by Emotional Transfer Machines (ETMs). The weather changes at the drop of a hat—rain, snow, fog and sleet, all within minutes, and feet, of each other, coining trademarked words like Slice, Slurm and Spindy. It’s a strange world that Shya Scanlon creates, but it’s easy to slip into it, the familiar opening the door for the unexpected.
The opening of the book sets up this new society, quickly establishing a setting that is strange and different, but based on city and suburban life that we all should recognize:
Wind was strong-arming a small group of saplings huddled together for protection at the end of the street, snow was immobilizing a car two houses down, and the sun was punishing Helen’s front yard with an unremitting heat that reminded her of the drought they’d had that morning just before another monsoon had swept through the neighborhood, flooding a couple of storm drains and drowning all the iguanas. Helen was glad to be rid of the iguanas, frankly. They don’t get along well with dogs.
We slip into this new world order and are quickly dropped into Zara/Helen’s life. We see the boring life she has now, but we also see that society has changed, appliances powered by negative energy, forcing the populace to tap into their fears, their sorrows, as a form of currency, a means for survival, a surreal way of existing, and defining one’s worth:
Zara followed Knuckle’s gaze across the street to the line that was beginning to form at the ETM. People stood around, eyeing one another suspiciously, pockets full of old dead batteries. It was still a strange and unnatural sight: the glowing, sweating machine producing its low, ominous hum. The conduction spot, fenced-off and set back from the road. One after another, people moved inside the fence and waited for a minute, getting their bearings, then went to work.
Watching all of this, Maxwell feels a sense of power, a sense of community, as he makes sure that his job is done well, the rules are followed, and his citizen is kept safe. But what happens when this is your job to watch, to live the life vicariously? There is certain to be an intimacy, false or real, a connection:
Fundamentally, there is no single CS way, rather there are as many ways as there are practitioners, each possessing the nearly ineffable key to unlocking the mysterious bond between watcher and Watchjob. Put simply: to see through someone else’s eyes requires a leap of faith so personal that while we’re (of course) normally under strict orders to maintain utter secrecy with regard to our practice, the issue is nearly moot.
What is it that Alan Moore asks when speaking about his award-winning graphic novel, Watchmen? “Who watches the watchmen?” This is big brother of course, in one of the many possible ways that government could rule over us, could manipulate us, but not a way that many have certainly anticipated. And of course, this is where the story goes wrong, where the curtain is pulled back and the truth is revealed. If the ETMs are the means to create power, electricity, and people were able to figure out how to STOP creating Buzz, stop being worker bees, then this would threaten the way that society worked, it would be dangerous. Those kinds of anarchists, those wishing to not be harnessed, they would be trouble, and need to be tamped down. Right?
Not if they got away. Without revealing the ending, we come full circle, back to where we started, firmly entrenched in the thoughts of Maxwell, whose narrative frames this novel. He contemplates what his role actually was in the life of Zara/Helen, one of the few citizens to not produce Buzz, the energy needed to run the world. In a game of chess, while the many different pieces move around the board, all with a role to play, the pawn has to believe it is a part of the cause, the solution, and not the sacrifice it truly is:
Sometimes you’re lucky. You’re lucky or you’re just damn good, or both. Sometimes you’re inside their head in ways they don’t even understand themselves, speaking with their mouth to tell you things they didn’t even know, or don’t and likely won’t ever. Sometimes you’re so far inside them you can’t tell the difference, anymore, between yourself and your watchjob. I know we’re taught to perform each part of the job with equal enthusiasm, or indifference, but every Surveillant in the business knows that those tiny transcendences are what make the job worth doing. And I shared many such moments with Zara, perhaps even more with Helen. I was inside Zara’s feelings for her parents, and I was inside her feelings for Asseem. I waded through the placid waters of Helen’s relationship with Jack. I kidnapped Rocket with her and drove her directly into Busy’s arms. I shared her most intimate moments and I felt her fear. I knew I was good. I knew I was capturing, recording, creating her very essence – an essence that often, to my astonishment, eluded even those closest to her. The bottom line is, I was a model Citizen Surveillant. I was at the top of my game.
And that’s what the rest of Maxwell’s crew was counting on.
Forecast is a funny book, with Zara and the talking dog Rocket providing numerous occasions to laugh at the bizarre and ridiculous nature of the world. It’s a sad story, tapping into the concept of manipulation, our value as human beings, and what our identities mean to us. It’s a genre-bending book that mixes the best of science fiction, noir, fantasy, and literary prose. And it’s getting the attention and praise of talented voices like Brian Evenson, Peter Straub and Laird Hunt, who call it vital, brilliant, and frightening. There is a movement on the ground in literary fiction today that doesn’t shy away from the horrific, the fantastic, or the speculative, and Shya Scanlon, with Forecast, is at the forefront of it.