One of science fiction’s strengths, relative to other literary genres, lies with its ability to extrapolate present conditions onto imagined futures, and to ponder what life might be like if today’s open questions were taken to their various logical conclusions. This is not the only valid approach to SF—there is and always be a place for escapist fun, as well as “scientistic” SF and SF that transgresses boundaries with other genres. I’ve enjoyed books reflecting each of these approaches, and am certain to again in the future.
But that’s not why I’m here.
Allow me to explain. I read widely—not just SF, but also fantasy, crime and literary fiction. However, when I read SF, I want probing questions about the world we live in and its many uncertainties; I want human stories, not just “physicsporn”; and I want the tropes of genre utilized as a means of speculation, not as ends in themselves. That’s what I had in mind when I started this column, and that’s what I naturally gravitate to. Not your thing? No problem—like I said, there’s room enough in the tent for everyone, and I’m not one to playact gatekeeper anyway.
Yet I would argue that the “message fiction” approach, which is to say, the use of science fictional literary tools as a means of exploring the present, represents a vital and important leitmotif within science fiction. Thus my enthusiasm about Black Hole by Bucky Sinister, a small press title I would never have even known existed about if not for the display curators at New York’s Strand Bookstore.
I doubt many within fandom have come across it either, as it’s written by a local poet and comedian—a genre outsider, in other words, and not the David Mitchell or Margaret Atwood kind. What’s more, in the more superficial sense of “taking place in a future marked by scientific progress and technological advancement,” Black Hole is barely science fiction at all. But it’s also the best science fiction I’ve read in ages.
Black Hole tells the story of Chuck, an aging punk and drug dealer barely scraping by in the gentrified San Francisco of the not-so-distant future. He works for a startup that clones “MiniWhales” and installs their tanks as showpieces in the homes of the tech industry megarich. Chuck is good at his job, but is also, well, just a tad unreliable (due to his penchant for consuming whatever drugs are available, whenever they are available). Good thing his bosses want someone with his kind of connections around. And when said bosses decide they’d like to try something new—something so new it doesn’t even have a name yet—they turn to Chuck. Not wanting to lose his job, he hits the pavement, eventually coming across the titular black hole—“a synthetic, smokeable speedball” that never seems to run out. But this dream drug isn’t all that it seems. It’s much, much more.
What ensues is a reality-bending trip of the first order—certain to appeal to fans of Philip K. Dick, William S. Burroughs or Irvine Welsh. It’s darkly humorous and very, very strange. You do have to stomach passages in which bodily fluids figure prominently, which is likely not for everyone. But if you can handle that kind of thing, Black Hole is a fun and memorable slice of absurdist satire.
That said, what really attracted me to the book was how it juxtaposed Chuck’s misadventures with a world growing less and less tolerant of alternative lifestyles.
In this all-too-real vision of future San Francisco, Yoga studios and organic coffee roasters have replaced live venues and bodegas, farm-to-table bistros have pushed out local taco and pizza-by-the-slice joints—and even the bodybuilding gym, with its distinct culture, has been displaced by a tech-fueled, healthy-wealthy consumer culture that only tolerates ideologically correct forms of physical fitness, like CrossFit or SoulCycle.
Sinister plays this for laughs at times, particularly with Chuck’s tour through an underground bodybuilding gym where steroid, HGH and amphetamine use are rampant. But he’s also dead serious. Besides, this kind of thing is already happening in the countercultural and working-class neighborhoods of “destination cities,” whether San Francisco, New York, Berlin, London, Hong Kong or Los Angeles. Sinister just takes it to a logical extreme, a vantage point from which we can see, clearly, just how culturally and socially destructive gentrification can be.
Only, this isn’t a screed against the young and rich, who enter neighborhoods for their cool cachet only to remake them in the sterile image of their upper-middle class dreams. Or, at least, it’s not just one. Chuck notes how the wave of young, creatively inclined in-migrants, like himself, set the stage for their own displacement, while also calling out the “old hippies with rent controlled apartments” who, in their quest to avoid work, drive up prices by charging $2000/month for a small room in shared apartment. Yet Sinister holds back from romanticizing what gentrification has replaced—the seedy, grimy underbelly of urban life. The nuance and complexity are, I think, major bonuses. I may gravitate toward message fiction, but ideological preaching gets very tiresome, very quickly.
Black Hole also contains some notable speculation on the future of the illicit drug industry. Meth, heroin and the like still exist, but the market has gravitated toward designer drugs produced by small experimental labs in California and the Netherlands, and tested in cities like San Francisco. If the prove popular enough, Chinese companies start mass-producing them; if not, they simply fade into memory. Trend-chasers seek the newest drugs, the ones that don’t even have names yet, in the hopes of being as far ahead of the curve as possible.
One of the more interesting mass-produced drugs, remote, allows users to speed up or slow down their perception of time. It becomes a club drug, with music specially tailored for the experience—so fast or slow that a sober person could not possibly comprehend what is going on, but to which the user can attune his or herself. The titular black hole is also of note, in part because it never runs out. I’d say more, but I don’t want to spoil the fun.
In short, I’d recommend Black Hole to anyone who likes to read books about countercultures, or gravitates toward reality-bending “freak-out novels,” or who, like me, wants to read more science fiction that speculates in the future in order to comment on the actual world we live in. It’s not for everyone, granted, but it’s the most exciting genre novel I’ve read in ages.
Black Hole is available from Soft Skull Press.
The G is founder and co-editor of the group blog ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’, which covers SF/F and crime fiction, comics, cult films and video games. He moonlights as an academic.