A cross between an ode to Aldous Huxley and an obeisance to Yevgeny Zamyatin, Joss Sheldon’s “Indiviutopia” is an intense exercise in dystopian fiction. Life in pods, isolated existence, artificial energy inducing foods and an irrational sense of exuberance all form the touchstones of this book. While the shades of Zamyatin are unmistakable, shadows of Huxley loom throughout the book, traversing the pages boldly.
Set in the year 2084 (yes I know what you are thinking right now as did I when I first saw the year), the story has as its protagonist, Renee Ann Blanca. She resides (if that is the word) in a London that has undergone a virtual transmogrification the likes of which could not have been envisaged even by the most talented prophet or the wiliest of the crystal ball gazers. Seeped in the philosophies of Thatcherism, the very fabric of social contract has been rend asunder and the four uncompromising inevitabilities characterizing society take the form of privatization, competition (that has outlasted and outwitted co-operation), impersonal relationship and a tidal wave of mental illnesses. It is under these circumstances that Renee Ann Blanca finds herself in what was once one of the greatest capital cities on earth.
Renee however is impervious to the perils and pitfalls that have plagued her city. Living in an isolated setting of her own (in a pod), she is saved from being the Siddhartha or Buddha of the modern world as her world is always viewed through rose tinted spectacles (literally so since she is always wearing “Plenses” which obviate her from sighting a single fellow human being). Inhaling anti-depressants from a vent in her pod (again Huxley looms large with his spectacularly potent mix of “Soma” that keeps the characters in “Brave New World” perennially happy and in capital cheer), Renee is in an induced state of perpetual ebullience. To embellish her cheer are her holograph “Avatars”, I-Original, I-Green, I-Special and I-Extra. Spurring their master on with narcissist words of encouragement and lending an atavistic boost to her psyche, these Avatars assist in Renee making the transition from being merely artificial to being transformed into the ephemeral. Constantly reminded of her debts, every passing second, courtesy a holographic screen flashing in front of her eyes, Renee is engaged in executing one monotonous task after another meaningless one just to gain adequate money to repay her debts. Since her debts are always stacked up and forever ahead of her meager savings, she is always playing catch up. A luxury to order virtual accessories and accoutrements exacerbates her situation. The exquisite irony surrounding the existence of Renee is illustrated in a chilling manner by Joss Sheldon when after a dab of a perfume that has the stench of rotten ham, Renee exults in a blissful manner about the worth of her perfume, being oblivious to the fact that her olfactory nerves are no longer capable of assimilating or distinguishing between wistful smells and wafting odours!
However, a moment of sheer chance, reveals to Renee the exact predicament in which she finds herself. Will this Eureka moment enable her to unshackle herself from the manufactured utopia enslaving her? Or will she be resigned to her paradoxical fate which is at once delightful and at others dreaded?
With “Individutopia”, Joss Sheldon brings to the fore a style of writing that is bold, bleak, instinctive and inspiring.