STAY TUNED by Liam Baker, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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STAY TUNED by Liam Baker, Review

Alexander Wallace is tuned in.
When you already live in a dystopia, literary dystopia can feel quaint. The great classics of the genre are ones from decades ago, reflecting the atomic bomb and the totalitarian state and the consequences of the second industrial revolution or television or secret police. For us in the liberal West, their classic status is assured, but as happens to so many classics, they are consigned to the museum, to be poured over as an exhibit to another, “less civilized” age.

And so it has been the task of science fiction writers to update the dystopia. There was the young adult dystopian boom that was kicked off by The Hunger Games, but that’s not what we’re talking about today. We’re talking about the Cory Doctorow form of dystopia, the one that feels crushingly real for us in the digital age as the transistor-powered panopticon slowly engulfs our very souls.

That brings us to Liam Baker’s dystopian novel, Stay Tuned. In the near future, the world is automated (families don’t have cars; they have ‘boxcars’). The newest thing in vogue is what is called ‘the Look,’ a neurological implant that allows you to see the world as you would like, not as per anyone else. You can use this implant to see your spouse as they were in college, or to make everything look like it’s out of your favorite anime. ‘The Look’ is both a dream and a nightmare, the culmination of the cascading algorithms that feed your biases like a spoonful of baby food to a squirming child in a highchair. In some ways, that’s social media: the great infantilizer and the puerile feeder, willing to pretend the processed slop is an airplane or a train just to get you to open your mouth.

In some ways, Stay Tuned isn’t a terribly original novel. However, I do not view that as being what this novel set out to do. Rather, Baker is trying to show how all the classic dystopian tropes of yesteryear are still relevant if you’re willing to put in the work to see their ripples in our world. There is the obvious descent from Nineteen Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451 and Harrison Bergeron, but this book’s most potent ancestor is Brave New World. Huxley’s book isn’t so much a dystopia as it is an anti-utopia (to borrow the argument of some long-forgotten internet comment); this society isn’t designed to oppress us, but to give us what we want. In spite of that, it oppresses us all the same. Both Huxley and Baker depict worlds that have raw pleasure replace religion as the opiate of the masses (recall how in the former the crosses on churches are dismembered to form the letter ‘T,’ homaging Henry Ford’s famous creation), fully aware that such a thing is a drug, and that we are the addicted.

In terms of the plot and the characters, they are familiar to the reader of novels of this type, but they are written effectively. Baker gives real pathos to Frank, the everyman husband at the head of a family that is slowly and surely succumbing to the addiction that the Look provides. He is the only character in most of the book that chooses to be sober in light of massive public intoxication. He tries the Look, yes, but then he looks at what it distorts, and in doing so he stares into an abyss that stares back at him. You have your outcasts and your forever wars of questionable reality. Those aren’t terribly original. But what they do spectacularly is show that the old dystopias are still relevant, in need of only a light coat of paint.

The only thing I found to be less than enrapturing is the way that the novel approaches sex; there are a few sex scenes. None of them devolve into outright pornography, but they do tend to be written in a way that feels obtrusively masculine. But even so, one such scene shows very well how well the Look can deceive its users; it is a scene that justifies at least its own presence.

But that’s just one relatively small aspect of the book. Overall, Stay Tuned is a needed demonstration of the power of the classic dystopia in the digital age. Those who find Orwell or Huxley or Zamyatin passe would be well served by reading it.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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