As the title suggests, Ben Tanzer’s science fiction novel Orphans is at heart about parents and their absence, both literally and figuratively. The characters exist in a future where The Corporation watches their every move and provides all the jobs. It is a parent without a face, or even a voice, aside that of authority.
The story is “about basics, survival stuff,” protagonist Norrin Radd tells us on page one. Tanzer captures Radd’s consciousness in a present tense so strong, his sentences sometimes revise themselves midstream. “It’s also about being a man, a man who takes care of his family. A man who told his wife that he could be a provider and that they should keep their baby, even if they could only have one. I want, no, need to prove to her, to society, to myself, that I am a man.” Talk about masculine insecurity: Radd’s wife, Shalla, is out of his league looks-wise, and he fears losing her affections. He wants to be a good father to his son Joey, but frets that he’s not good enough. He hopes to protect his family from pain and disappointment, but for someone in Radd’s position, this proves difficult.
In Baidu, formerly Chicago, economic classes have all but ossified. The rich “1-Percenters” have white-collar jobs with The Corporation, while the poor… well, they do what they can, which isn’t much, since robots and clones handle the menial labor. Black helicopters hover above the city’s denizens, swooping upon them when any group of more than three people gather together in the streets, often shooting first and asking questions never.
Through former high school friends, Radd lands a job selling real estate to 1-Percenters on Mars. Radd, in what is essentially a grift, sells the well-born empty plots on the dry, windblown desert of a planet. But hey—at least it’s not Earth, where the areas out of The Corporation’s control are war-torn and impoverished. He plays on their “hope disguised and built on fear, fear of a lost way of life that can be regained [on Mars].” It’s his big break, the only one he’ll get.
While off-planet, Radd is replaced by a Terrax, a clone that comes equipped with the source-body’s memories but isn’t exactly alive. Something about him—his eyes, skin, manner—is lifeless and off. Just as the humans in the Wachowskis’ The Matrix rejected a too-perfect simulated world, the people of Tanzer’s novel generally don’t like these clones because they’re patient, calm, and nice all the time. Those ideal qualities cause Radd anxiety. What if his replacement is a better man than he? His wife admits the clone is amazing in bed.
This is an ingenious conceit, and one that builds, as the novel progresses, into a grand theme. How can Radd be an individual in a world where people are literally replaceable, where they’re worked by a soulless corporation till they’re useless and then scrapped, where they interact more with technology then with one another? Radd ends up emotionally displaced from his own life, on the outside looking in, adrift on the waves of space and time, full of rage and without a sense of agency.
Dark stuff, but handled with a playful touch. The novel’s name matches that of a Beck song, from the album Modern Guilt, which would’ve also made for an apt title. Like Beck, Tanzer is a post-modern mixmaster, chopping up bits of this book and that movie—most especially, I think, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report—to create a new work that transcends its influences even as it would fall apart without them. Tanzer ecstatically embraces these influences, acknowledging some of them at book’s end.
Tanzer doesn’t always transform or re-imagine his sources; sometimes he just tosses them in whole-cloth. One of Radd’s real estate coworkers, Shelley, comes straight out of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glenn Ross. He’s an object lesson for Radd: an old man too slow, bewildered, and focused on his personal troubles to be an earner for The Corporation, a husband to his wife—in short, a man, as Radd defines one. The Coen Brothers’ Big Lebowski appears as well (“Dude!”), as a surfer always high on SynthKat (what sounds like edible pot) who provides Radd with moments of stoned wisdom. Strangely—and wonderfully—The Lion King‘s “Hakuna Matata” becomes a sort of mantra for Radd, though its “No Worries” message proves more ominous than comforting. By the end of the novel, Radd quotes Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” saying “he’d prefer not to” work for The Corporation anymore.
The Bartleby leitmotif precipitates a too-quick shift into the book’s final act. Tanzer maintains a quick pace throughout, keeping the descriptions of the world sparse. At times, this minimalism works to the novel’s advantage—while he never lingers over a description of one of the “electronic concierges,” robots that serve as the gatekeepers to the buildings of Baidu, I could see them. The setting, on the other hand, remains in shadows. The people on the Red Planet get blue skin from prolonged oxygen deprivation, yet I couldn’t quite visualize the domed city through which their Neptune-colored legs stride.
Similarly, Radd’s background is sketched out, only unfolding at any length in two flashbacks. I wanted to see more of where he was coming from, especially his relationship with his wife, so central to the plot. The present-tense voice carried me along in its swift current, no matter my desire to pause.
As problems go, brevity is a fine one to have. (And this is a short novel, clocking in at 161 pages.) Often I find myself reading overly long books, since 500 pages seems to be the new 300 pages. Leaving the table a bit hungry feels better than leaving it ready to puke. I also recognize that Tanzer is referencing a tradition of pulp science fiction—Philip K. Dick frequently came to mind, along with Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov’s Robot stories—which doesn’t concern itself much with lengthy description or characterization. But with a world as unique as the one Tanzer lays out, I would like to have stayed a bit longer.
Especially because the crisis Norrin Radd experiences is an unusual one. It’s not that he’s bad at his job—on the contrary, he excels at it. But the lifestyle that his position requires—turning his family over to a clone while he shuttles off to Mars for long periods, enslaved to a megalithic corporation, fraternizing with a bunch of apathetic, hedonistic meatheads who care only about money—leaves him dehumanized. He provides for his family financially, but the process leaves him empty in other, more meaningful ways. Being a man, as he put it on page one, might not be enough for him. Radd is profoundly orphaned, his life lacking the safety, comfort, and reassurance a parent provides.