What struck me when I was reading this near future space adventure is how dated it is. Much has happened since this was originally published in 1991 (not all that long ago), such as further (robotic) exploration of Mars and the collapse of the Soviet Union, both of which never occurred in this story. A couple of the things that did happen in this fictional tale were a rapid decline of the American space program and the privatization of most aspects of government, including NASA and the U.S. Navy. The book does not present a very hopeful future as a result, but it does provide a bit of subtle cultural satire.
It is told from and omniscient point of view with multiple characters, although the central one is Bass, an aging astronaut from NASA’s glory days. He is approached by an entertainment conglomerate to help ‘salvage’ a spacecraft built (but never used) by NASA and the Soviets, and to bring a crew of movie stars to Mars to make a movie and, as a result, a lot of money.
The writing is good, the characters are plausible and their individual motivations make sense, but the premise itself, in addition to being dated, just doesn’t. At least not much. I accept the exaggerations about corporate takeovers of government functions for the sake of cultural satire, but how could a huge spaceship be built in orbit without it being common knowledge? Why would it be fully provisioned and then abandoned until it is salvaged by a movie company twenty years later? And sunlight digitized and stored on CDs to provide a power source? Sorry. That’s not ridiculous enough to be funny or realistic enough to be believable.
All in all, this is a fairly enjoyable hard science fiction tale. It has some satire, a bit of humor, decent characters, and a plot that hangs together well. I can recommend it for Science Fiction fans looking for a good, old-fashioned story of near space.
The similarities to Fahrenheit 451 are obvious. The Pickup Artist is set in a near future America in which art in all forms — music, literature, painting, movies — is being purged to alleviate the glut of such things and allow space for new creative endeavors. When a work, author, or artist is placed on the deletion list, all originals and copies of the applicable art forms are collected and destroyed.
The first-person narrator of this story is a pickup artist, a person working for the Bureau of Arts and Information who confiscates (normally with compensation) books, albums, tapes, CDs and the like from those who own them. One day, he collects a vinyl album by Hark Williams. It reminds him of his father, and he becomes obsessed with listening to it, but first he needs to locate a record player. His search for one brings him into contact with two factions of the Alexandrians, both of which have their roots in the movement that brought about the policy of cultural purging but now have diametrically opposed goals.
The first-person narrative is interspaced with short historical bits on how this policy of cultural deletion came about.
The premise almost works as a bit of cultural satire, but it is too absurd to have the impact of a cautionary tale like Fahrenheit 451.There are also elements such as the cloned Indians, talking dog, and mature baby that I assume were supposed to have some symbolic significance but, whatever that was, it eluded me.
The characters are believable enough to evoke some empathy, and the setting is not so bizarre that it prevents suspension of disbelief for the sake of the story. The book is different and interesting, but I can’t recommend it as a particularly enjoyable read.
Why I chose to read this: I picked this up at the library because it was near an older book by the same writer, which looked interesting.
In an economically struggling America, two good friends, Perry and Lester, invent and sell novelty items made of junk. This places them in the vanguard of the New Work movement, and they ride that wave until it busts in obvious parallel to the bursting of the dot-com bubble. They shake themselves off, and build an ever-changing amusement ride in south Florida. It seems to be catching on, which in turn, catches the attention of a nervous Disney executive concerned about declining attendance at the Disney World attraction he oversees in Orlando.
And that’s pretty much the plot. It’s the story of Perry and Lester, two guys with lots of imagination but not much business sense. They are joined by Suzanne Church, a journalist turned blogger who reports on what they are doing, and by a few other supporting cast members.
Mainly this is a book of social commentary. It highlights contrasts between protecting vested interests and investment in new ideas, open and proprietary technology, and big corporations and small entrepreneurs. It did all of this fairly well, I thought, and the future it paints is somewhat depressing but believable.
The characters are also believable, for the most part. I have only read one other Doctorow novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and the characters in this one are a definite improvement. They aren’t admirable or even especially likeable, but they have understandable motivations and personalities. Even the two characters serving in the role of villains are more pitiable than evil.
The prose is serviceable and the story flows logically. My biggest gripe about the storytelling was the inclusion of a far too descriptive sex scene, which felt like it was cut and pasted out of some steamy erotic romance novel. It wasn’t required, and it didn’t fit. Oh, and it talks about people smoking clove cigarettes, which are no longer legal in the U.S. and I doubt they will be again in the near future. You can still buy small, clove cigars, but they’re not as good. (Yeah, I used to smoke the things.)
Anyway, as a near future tale about two average geeky guys, this isn’t bad. It’s not silly. It doesn’t rant. The characters aren’t cardboard stereotypes, and it brings up some interesting ideas. I can recommend it for readers interested in seeing one possible future that believable extensions of current technology and economic trends make possible.