PRIME TIME (Word Craft of Oregon) by DAVID MEMMOTT Reviewed by DUFF BRENNA
David Memmott’s Prime Time is a work that imagines a world so completely absorbed in science, so smothered in technology, that the boundaries of what is real and what is virtual reality are blurred beyond recognition. The year is 2031 and science has created multiple layers of consciousness and states of being that can be bought, adopted, used and discarded at will. Drugs can give you any mood you desire; holograms can fashion whatever surroundings you wish to imagine; genetic manipulation can keep you young, vibrant, sexually vigorous, ambitious, or tranquil. You can even be “resurrected” if you have resurrection insurance. The resurrection technique involves having a clone-in-waiting who can be given your memories, thoughts, experiences, etc. You’re walking around as not quite you, but at least an adequate you. Better than nothing.
One of the main characters is a nubile teenager named Mercury Blue. She has the body that most women would love to have. She is beautiful, intelligent, energetic and creative. In a telling image we see dueling tigers tattooed on her buttocks. Throughout the book Mercury battles with herself, her impulses, her needs and desires. Her natural gifts do not satisfy her. Like most of us she wants more. She especially wants to be the famous actress Foxxy Hart who has “breasts more precious than Ming vases.” Foxxy is a futuristic version of Rita Hayworth, specifically the Rita who starred in the Orson Wells 1948 classic The Lady from Shanghai.
Early in the book Mercury is morphed into a Foxxy Hart clone lying nearly naked on a beach in “Nu-Belize.” From the ocean a man in a wetsuit emerges. He approaches the reclining Mercury/Foxxy. She recognizes him as James Bond, the character Sean Connery played in Thunderball. We never learn who this man really is, but it doesn’t matter. In this “Nu-World” it is better to circumvent reality, which is what they do. The two sheaths seduce each other and make passionate love on the beach of Nu-Belize. In a later chapter Mercury leaves Nu-World behind her and goes to the actual country of Belize and finds it “not so perfect as Nu-Belize.” The perfection of virtual existence is a two-edged sword, however, creating people like Mercury who lose and confuse themselves. They become victims of a state of being they believed they wanted. To emphasize this theme Memmott quotes Fred Alan Wolf: “We are, at once, the creators of our reality and the victims of our creation …” and Alice in Wonderland (the 1951 film):
If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is
because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary-wise; what it is it wouldn’t be, and what it
wouldn’t be, it would. You see?
Keeping both quotes in mind may help readers go with what is sometimes a confusing flow. Memmott seems to be deliberately mimicking the confusing flow of life as we know it. The quotes may also help decode the book’s overlapping plotlines. There is the Foxxy Hart-Wilbur Hart plotline. He’s her husband. Or maybe not. Actually he was killed, or rather eliminated. Or maybe he committed suicide. Whichever it is the Wilbur we see with Foxxy is the third version of the Wilbur she married long ago. She doesn’t particularly like this version and so Wilbur may have to be eliminated again. There is the Mercury Blue-Mystery Muhn plotline: she’s the same person, but we don’t know that for a while. She’s on the lam, being sought after by Taz, the leader of a gang called the Razors. He wants her because she bailed on the Razors and took a valuable cloaking “Device” with her. There is the Benito Cortezar-Worldbenders plotline. Worldbenders can, well, bend the world of your perceptions. They can re-invent you, give you a different past, a better present, an exciting future. Other characters come and go. There is Papa Art who once taught art history at a university. He’s now a tattoo artist teaching his art to Taz. Papa Art would rather be teaching at the university still, but attitudes have changed and in a sense Papa and his art can’t go home again: “Why hang around a campus and study with Papa Art when you could jack into a virtual classroom and learn from the masters, deconstructing a figure with Picasso or practicing your controlled drip with an entranced Jackson Pollock?” Eventually all these plotlines converge into an ending that was (for me at least) totally unpredictable. And satisfying—very.
The key to nearly everything Memmott describes lies in the possibilities of future technology. Where is our increasing ability to manipulate our environment, our biology, our mental processes taking us? Prime Time seems to be saying that we are living in “Dreamtime” now and perhaps heading towards a higher level of existence, wherein our technology will allow us to shed this human shell that has been holding us back:
Why should there be flesh at all? … We should have electric bodies with nervous systems
designed to live forever in a biomorphic field, a field corresponding in every way to the infinitude of
outer space. In Primetime we can shape ourselves and our future simultaneously. …What is personal
identity? Where are the boundaries? Are we the membranes through which information flows? Are we
the synapses that fire in response to stimulus? Are we mindless hosts of selfish genes that drive us to
eat and fuck and dream?
If we can perfect it, get the kinks out, Primetime will provide the bridge that will usher in a golden age. “It won’t require violent revolutions, wars, pestilence, famine or disaster. Only creative play.” Primetime is where our innate creativity, like the creativity of God, is possibly leading us. “Primetime is the door for humans into what Alfred [North] Whitehead called ‘unbounded potential for creative advance, the moving boundary of co-creation.”
What Memmott describes is only the possibility of a utopian world. The key word being “possibility” because it hasn’t been achieved, and in truth the world laid out for us in these pages is mostly dystopian, much like the current world we are living in, a world full of “… cruelty, intolerance, violence and anarchy set against a background of over-organization, inflexible authority, forced deprivation of the many to support a privileged few, senseless destruction in pursuit of power, lack of leadership culminating in bureaucratic entropy.” It is the past. It is now. It is tomorrow.
There are two sci-fi books that may have had some influence on Memmott when he wrote Prime Time. I’m referring to two dystopian classics of science fiction, one written by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), which was adapted for the film Blade Runner (1982), and William Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer, wherein the words “matrix” and “cyberspace” became popular additions to the English language. The parallels to Prime Time weaving through the works I’m describing may ring a bell for anyone sci-fi fan that has read them.
In Philip K. Dick’s story there is a character named Wilbur Mercer who is the founder of a religious movement that is in some ways a thinly disguised amalgam of Christianity and science. Dick gives Wilbur Mercer the power to revive the dead. The government circumvents Mercer and he goes to live in what is called a “tomb world,” whence he tries to return to earth and free his followers from the cycle of life and death. It is Wilbur Hart in Prime Time who dies and is “resurrected” and dies again. The wish to go beyond this cycle is prevalent throughout Memmott’s story as it is in Dick’s. The dehumanizing aspects of technology that Memmott writes about are also found in William Gibson’s book, where people are robbed of their individuality and creativity and given genetic engineering that allows them to go “beyond” the real and live in virtual reality. Memmott puts the stimulus of Dick and Gibson to good use, creating a story that takes the best of both and adds his own vision of the future to them, giving us characters that are original and engrossing, characters that we care about. This ability isn’t common in science fiction. The Robert Heinlein of Stranger in a Strange Land was generally able to make readers care about his characters, as was the Frank Herbert of Dune and the Ray Bradbury of The Martian Chronicles, but mostly science fiction lets hard science get in the way of character. Those who have read any of the books by Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov will understand exactly what I mean. The point is: it’s not easy to lift sci-fi to the level of literature, but Memmott has done it in brilliant fashion in Prime Time.
Ultimately Prime Time becomes a meditation on human technology. Is it really good for us? Does its bad side outweigh its good side? Where will it take us? And what will the use of drugs to alter reality do to the human race? Memmott is saying, in part, that we have it in our power to create a utopia, but we haven’t found a way yet to use the positive skills that nature has given us to good effect. Physical impulses feeding the need for thrills hold us in thrall. Movies, TV, videos, computers, iPods, blackberries, cell phones (cyberspace itself) in many obvious ways have become realer than real, making us want the virtual world more than this boring old work-a-day world we’re forced to deal with. Whether we like it or not the “Nu-Age” is here. But as Mammott points out, it may turn on us and give us a new form of VD—Virtual Disease.
Duff Brenna – Fiction Editor (see bio in Author Pages).