On New Year’s Day 2012, the SETI people finally receive an incontrovertibly extraterrestrial signal, which they announce in a hastily convened web-broadcast which, true to the time, much of the world does its best to watch despite the bandwidth issues.
As one might expect, the enormity of this interjection into the rolling drama of human existence suddenly changes everything, or at least it seems to: people become more positive, more sociable; conflicts cease or cool; governments rapproche, and new promises are made on climate, social justice, etc etc.
For soon-to-be-unemployed music teacher Sevi Del Toro, the big change is falling back in love with his ex-girlfriend Ramona, while they were on the phone watching the SETI announcement press conference together; not long after, he relocates from Chicago to California to live with her. Ramona is a coder, working for Google without being entirely sure why or what for, where she’s developing a piece of software intended to screen out the most triggering material from an individual user’s online experience—a sort of personal AI reality filter.
Back in Chicago, Sevi’s private pupil and cello prodigy Eason tries to extricate a childhood friend from a beef he’s gotten into with a fellow dealer, but Eason unintentionally ends up working the hustle himself as the payoff for getting his friend off the hook. Sevi’s brother Samson, meanwhile, decamps on what is far from his first foray into a world of ersatz rebellion and rage against the machine, heading for Syria via Turkey to try to intervene on the Kurdish side of the still very much ongoing civil war.
In Chicago, schools like the one where Sevi was teaching are being closed to make way for new blocks of condos, and gentrification rolls on relentlessly, just as it does in California, where Ramona boards the infamous “wifi bus” to Palo Alto every morning, passing a small but growing crowd of protestors outside her apartment in the Mission in order to do so.
And then, later in the year, just as suddenly as it started, the signal—from a planet that has been dubbed “Omni”—stops.
The story—or stories, really, because they are manifold and interleaved, while simultaneously being as isolated and solipsistic as their focal characters—is about a lot of things: about learning to listen, even when there seems to be nothing (you want) to hear; about learning to communicate, even when there seems to be nothing to say but things that will hurt both the sender and the receiver; about coming to terms with the existential horror of being one of eight billion or so members of a planetary species that’s destroying itself and its environment, and doing so despite the knowledge that it is doing so; about forgiving yourself for that act of coming-to-terms, and finding something to believe in or care about anyway, even as you realise that your individual actions can’t make much of a difference.
If that sounds like a happy or even self-helpish sort of ending, then I’ve done a lousy job of capturing an admittedly many-faceted and ambiguous thing, and done Soto and his book a disservice. It is a very sad ending in many ways, and the book as a whole can feel bitter, cynical, even outright defeatist. But it also bears moments of extraordinary beauty and poetry, flashes of love and rumbles of humour and pathos, arresting images and singular turns of phrase.
It is a work of science fiction—or at least it has rummaged deeply in the toolbox of that evaporated genre—but it is at the same time sui generis to that category, particularly in its outright and thematic refusal of comfort or closure. It is in some regards a historical novel, set a decade ago in a time which somehow already feels like a lifetime away, but it is also uncannily contemporary in many of its themes and concerns: an illustration of how, for all we may feel that 2012 has receded as far into history as the skiffy technotopia peddled by the Valley has receded into an ever-less-reachable future, both of those temporalities are in fact right here, right now, superimposed upon the present and upon one another, a melange of false promise and sustained failure.
This Weightless World is not the sort of novel that takes you away from it all; indeed, the refusal of escapism at its core is what sets it in opposition to core sf, and might as such be said to align it somewhat with Mike Harrison’s project of generic demolition. (Though it has more in common, tonally, with Douglas Coupland, even as it leavens Coupland’s signature misanthropy with a sympathy that author has long since lost, if it was ever present in the first place.)
No—This Weightless World brings you back to earth with a bruising bump, like someone switched off the antigrav, or perhaps just pointed out that the antigrav was a concretised metaphor all along. And as uncomfortable and injurious as that landing might be, perhaps it’s just what you need.