In the June 4th & 11th, 2012, issue of The New Yorker, Jennifer Egan, in her story “Black Box,” re-imagines one of the characters from her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad” as a futuristic female spy keeping a mental log of her current mission while going undercover among suspected terrorists in the 2030s. A new take on the conventions of the spy thriller, the story is also a commentary on the ideas of heroism, patriotism, and violence. The story is written in terse dispatches of a hundred and forty characters or less, and is being tweeted, through The New Yorker Fiction Department’s Twitter handle, @NYerFiction, in ten nightly installments between 8 and 9 P.M. E.T. The Twitter serialization, which began on Thursday, May 24th, will run through Saturday, June 2nd. Each installment will be available, after the tweets are complete, on the Page-Turner blog at newyorker.com, and the entire story will appear in this week’s Science-Fiction Issue of the magazine. In a post on newyorker.com, Egan says that “Black Box” represents the convergence of several of her long-standing fictional interests: “One involves fiction that takes the form of lists; stories that appear to be told inadvertently, using a narrator’s notes to him or herself,” she writes. Another long-term goal of Egan’s was to “take a character from a naturalistic story and travel with her into a different genre,” which she accomplishes by transporting a “Goon Squad” character to a spy thriller. “I’d also been wondering about how to write fiction whose structure would lend itself to serialization on Twitter,” Egan writes. “This is not a new idea, of course, but it’s a rich one—because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in 140 characters.”
In the short story “Monstro” (p. 106), Junot Díaz imagines an overheated, economically stratified future Caribbean where a mysterious skin infection known as La Negrura (“The Darkness”) has begun to attack the population of Haiti. Díaz’s narrator, a nineteen-year-old college student, who is spending his summer vacation with his sick mother in the Dominican Republic, falls in with a classmate, the ambitious photographer Alex, and his wealthy friends. “We ran in totally different circles back at Brown, him prince, me prole, but we were both from the same little Island that no one else in the world cared about, and that counted for something, even in those days,” the narrator says. As the group “kicks it super hard,” smoking marijuana and chasing girls, the plague in nearby Haiti grows more and more worrisome. “Doctors began reporting a curious change in the behavior of infected patients: they wanted to be together, in close proximity all the time,” Díaz writes, and, though they wouldn’t speak, “the entire infected population simultaneously let out a bizarre shriek—two, three times a day. Starting together, ending together.” When the disease’s “viktims” become suddenly more malevolent, and the authorities make a disastrous decision about how to contain the epidemic, the narrator’s life is changed forever.
In “The Republic of Empathy” (p. 58), Sam Lipsyte questions notions of authenticity, reality, and empathy in six interconnected vignettes, focussing on six different characters, including a new father, a gay ex-cop who creates masterpieces for fictional artists in the movies, a wealthy businessman on a search for artistic truth, and even a killer drone endowed with human consciousness. One of Lipsyte’s characters, Danny, acknowledges his status as a fictional creation: “I sound like a narrator of a mediocre young-adult novel from the eighties. Which is, in fact, what I am.” Through these interwoven stories, Lipsyte asks readers to relinquish their conceptions of dreams vs. reality, fiction vs. truth, and past vs. present.
In “The Clockwork Condition” (p. 69), an essay written in 1973 but never published, Anthony Burgess reflects on the “true meaning” of his most famous novel, “A Clockwork Orange.” In addition to commenting on the inspiration for the work, and its main character, Alex, Burgess offers an argument about the nature of good and evil and the necessity of free will, as seen through the prisms of Nazi Germany and the Resistance, Catholicism and Calvinism. “We probably have no duty to like Beethoven or hate Coca-Cola, but it is at least conceivable that we have a duty to distrust the state,” Burgess writes. Conformity is natural, and perhaps preferable for many people, he explains, but “when patterns of conformity are imposed by the state, then one has a right to be frightened.” Ultimately, he writes of “A Clockwork Orange,” “what I was trying to say was that it is better to be bad of one’s own free will than to be good through scientific brainwashing.”
In a series of sidebars about writers’ introductions to science fiction, Ray Bradbury describes his earliest experiences with the genre and tells of a childhood Fourth of July that inspired his story “The Fire Balloons” (p. 66); Ursula K. Le Guin recalls being a woman relegated to the “gender ghetto” of the male-dominated nineteen-sixties science-fiction scene (p. 78); China Miéville writes an e-mail back in time to a young science-fiction fan—himself (p. 82); Margaret Atwood remembers the discovery that fiction could be “pure fantasy” (p. 84); Karen Russell relives how reading fantasy books fed her family at Pizza Hut (p. 102); and William Gibson explains how science fiction led him to the “wider tributary of literature” (p. 106).
In addition, Colson Whitehead remembers a childhood watching horror and sci-fi movies (p. 98) and Jonathan Lethem imagines an élite “Internet within the Internet” where a hundred people, specially selected by a “great leader,” go on-line without the distractions of the larger Web (p. 78).
Plus: In Comment, Philip Gourevitch looks at the international community’s unwillingness to respond to the crisis in Syria (p. 49); in the Financial Page, James Surowiecki explains how our obsession with fairness has hindered a compromise on Greece’s economic troubles (p. 56); Laura Miller traces the popularization of fictional aliens in literature, beginning in the nineteenth century (p. 120); Emily Nussbaum watches the cult shows “Doctor Who” and “Community” (p.126); John Lahr takes in “February House” and “The Common Pursuit” (p. 128); Alex Ross reflects on the work of the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and his disciples (p. 130); and Anthony Lane reviews “Moonrise Kingdom” (p. 132).
Online: In The New Yorker Outloud Podcast, Deborah Treisman and Jennifer Egan talk about Egan’s short story “Black Box,” and Curtis Fox talks to Junot Díaz, Jonathan Lethem, and Sam Lipsyte about their pieces in this week’s Science-Fiction Issue. In The Political Scene Podcast, Nicholas Lemann and James Surowiecki talk about the economics and politics of student debt. Philip Gourevitch will take questions from readers about the crisis in Syria on Tuesday, May 29, at 3 P.M. E.T.
Tablet extras: A video trailer for the issue, featuring aliens, cyborgs, and zombies by Dan Winters. A video of Emily Nussbaum discussing the fan culture of “Community” and “Doctor Who.”Audio files of Jonathan Lethem, Junot Díaz, Sam Lipsyte, and Kay Ryan reading their pieces. Richard Brody on Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” (1965).
The June 4 & 11, 2012, issue of The New Yorker goes on sale at newsstands beginning Monday, May 28th 2012.