Book review

If you’re going to write a dystopian novel in our increasingly dystopian world (climate change! creeping fascism! coronavirus!), you may as well have some fun with it. Gish Jen certainly does in “The Resisters,” as she sets a baseball-centric coming-of-age story in a cruelly class-divided “AutoAmerica” of the near future.

The result is a rabble-rousing tale with an ominous edge to it.

From the time she can stand up in her crib, Gwen Cannon-Chastanet, the daughter of narrator Grant and his wife Eleanor, shows a remarkable gift for throwing her stuffed animals at high velocity through her bedroom door at an invisible but precise target on the hallway wall. Her parents don’t know what to make of this at first. Gwen is their only child and, as Grant observes, children “are their own normal.”

Eventually, he and Eleanor figure out just how unusual a kid Gwen is. But how best to help her fulfill her athletic talents in a world where the odds are so stacked against her?

After all, Grant and Eleanor are a “Surplus” couple in a land where every advantage goes to the “Netted.” AutoAmerica’s Surplus population has been relegated to the less desirable regions of the country, vulnerable to rising sea levels and increasingly violent storms. Classed as “Unretrainables,” they’re told their chief civic duty is to use their Basic Income to consume as much as possible. “Aunt Nettie” — as Surplus folks call the “Autonet” that spies on them — makes sure they rack up all the “Living Points” they can by eating the unhealthy and possibly drugged “Nettiefood” they’re provided, though some find a way around this.

In the meantime, the Netted, with their access to education and jobs, are expected to produce. On rare occasions, ambitious Unretrainables can “Cross Over.” But the cultural divide between Netted and Surplus is so acute that neither faction feels comfortable in the other’s societal sphere.

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Unsurprisingly, racism is alive and well in AutoAmerica. “Not all the Unretrainables were coppertoned, like me,” Grant informs us. “A great many were angelfair. But it was hard not to notice that the Unretrainables did somehow include everyone coppertoned, as well as everyone spy-eyed, like Eleanor.”

Despite her lowly social status, Gwen attracts attention among the Netted for her uncanny pitching talents. They’d like her to join the Netted baseball league and maybe even help take on ChinRussia in the upcoming Olympic Games. Gwen, strongly grounded in her Surplus identity, reluctantly goes along with this, in part under pressure from her mother — a one-time attorney, now a “resister,” who thinks Gwen should grab the educational opportunity being offered.

Eleanor may be the driving force in the family, but tech-savvy Grant helps by jamming the surveillance devices that eavesdrop on them. Paranoid about what might happen when she heads to Net U, he even bugs his own daughter — a clever narratorial device that lets readers view Gwen’s odyssey at one remove, colored by covert parental worry.

Jen has great fun with the details of AutoAmerican daily life, especially its utter lack of privacy. The “3-D printed blue-and-yellow plastic AutoHouse” that Gwen’s family lives in regularly comments on their behavior and that of their friends. “Leaving already?” it queries one visitor. “But you’ve only just arrived.” When told by Grant to shut up, it chides him, “Shut up is what we say when we’ve lost an argument and don’t want to admit it.”

Ambiguous emissaries from the Netted world have an equally offbeat presence. But the trickiest character in the book is Gwen’s best friend Ondi Nickelhoff, who, like Gwen, is “Blasian” (of mixed Black and Asian ethnicity). After Ondi’s rebellious streak gets her whole family in terrifying trouble, the on-again, off-again nature of the girls’ damaged friendship throws a shadow over their teenage and college years.

The twists of distrust afflicting the Cannon-Chastanets and their circle become ever more complex as the book proceeds. Rumors of rebellion in ChinRussia, triggered by the “Total Persuasion Architecture” oppressing the population, are also unsettling. And the general ecodisaster backdrop to the lives of the Surplus is a constant worry.

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The winning, suspenseful heart of the book is Gwen’s resourceful action on the field (and I’m saying that as a total baseball illiterate). Jen’s jauntily sinister AutoAmerican argot (“Ship’EmBack” for a racist deportation program, “RoboSitters, ElderHelpers and YardBots” for cybergadgets that keep households running smoothly) is a continual pleasure as well.

Best of all is her take on why even the ultimate surveillance society can’t quite muffle the human spirit.

“One thing Aunt Nettie may never get about us,” Eleanor muses, is that “we’re irrational and perverse. That we destroy things we love, then want to fix them. Where’s the algorithm that explains that?”

Where indeed?

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The Resisters” by Gish Jen, Knopf, 301 pp., $26.95