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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Review of NOSTALGIA by M. G. Vassanji

3.5 Stars
At the end of my last book review (for Company Town by Madeline Ashby), I mentioned that I do not read much speculative fiction. But I was confronted with another book of that genre, a dystopian tale of human engineering, when I picked up this other Canada Reads finalist for the book Canadians need now.

Nostalgia is set in Toronto in the near future when near-immortality is possible.  People, tired of one life, may get refurbished bodies, new faces, and new pasts implanted in their brains.  Unfortunately, the process is not perfect so sometimes memories from a past life intrude; those suffering from this nostalgia syndrome go to see a doctor like the protagonist of the novel, Frank Sina, who repairs the leaks.

A patient, Presley Smith, approaches Frank because of nostalgia symptoms, and he immediately feels a bond with this man although he doesn’t understand why.  Even when the Department of Internal Security warns him that Presley is a national security risk, Frank persists in seeing Presley. 

Meanwhile, a young reporter, Holly Chu, has been abducted in Maskinia, a lawless and barbaric country south of the Long Border that separates it from countries like Canada which are part of the North Atlantic Alliance.  Frank follows the news of her fate very closely.

The novel examines a number of conflicts.  There is, for example, a young versus old conflict.  BabyGens who have real relatives and no past lives feel hostile towards GN people who have been regenerated.  One BabyGen summarizes their case to Frank:  “You had it so good, you were pampered right into middle age like big babies.  Then, on top of all that security, you built up your lives and fat worths.  What chance do we stand in this world that you’ve made?  What do we inherit when our natural parents simply move on, taking their wealth with them” (83)?  He also says, “My point is that while you, the elderly elite, find ways to prolong your existence with new organs and new lives and monopolize the world’s resources, what about us young people?  When do we get a chance?  Youth unemployment is approaching thirty percent” (183)! 

There is also strife between rich and poor.  Frank is asked, “Since rejuvenation is available to the rich, what about the poor?  What is their place in this Brave New World of yours?  Is your science a method to cull the poor from our midst” (179)?  Economic disparity is also obvious between the inhabitants north and south of the Long Border.  Those not part of the North Atlantic Alliance suffer from poverty; they are dependent on food donations from aid agencies:  “Despite its natural wealth, Maskinia by all measures of development remains one of the poorest areas in the world, the majority of the population earning less than five dollars a day and lacking basic amenities such as electricity, running water, and sewage disposal” (172). Of course, the natural resources of Maskinia are exploited, and wealthy tourists take tours through this third-world region on the edge of collapse.  In her tour of Maskinia, Holly realizes, “A small percentage of the people on earth wallowed in wealth while the rest suffered deprivation” (188).

Because of the unequal distribution of wealth, there are anxieties about immigration as people from south of the Long Border try to find better lives in the north.  The Long Border was constructed “to stop the tides of desperate migrants sweeping upon European and American shores” (172).  The border has created other problems, however:  “Tighter clampdown and casualties at the Long Border are a cause of bitter resentment, used to advantage by the [ethnic and religious] militias to rally for recruitment into their ranks” (173).  These militias carry out “abductions; attacks on development and aid networks; attacks on industrial activities such as mining; smuggling people to the north; and drug trafficking . . .  [and send] personnel through the Long Border to carry out acts of terror” (173 – 174). 

Of course, life north of the Long Border is not perfect.  There are several Orwellian touches.  For example, the government watches Frank by installing a camera in his office, hiding a device in his clothes, and having someone follow him.  Computers have become like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey; Frank’s computer observes him and Frank admits, “He knew my innermost thoughts . . . perhaps before I did” (34).  Frank’s records are accessed and he knows this is routine:  “Any privacy you possess is a privilege that can be casually and briskly withdrawn” (108).

And, as one can expect with technological and scientific advances, not all problems have been solved.  There are unanswered questions:  “Can the soul (or the heart) be transmitted across generations? . . . [Can] personality traits or sensibilities such as the artistic” (85)?  Even more significantly, “We who have violated personal history and personal relationships in our bid to become immortal, can we now really know for certain who we are” (126)?  There is a fear of loss of self:  those implanted with idyllic fictions can become fictions (206).  The novel suggests that knowledge of one’s past and roots and a sense of connection through family and community are necessary for happiness. 

There is much in the novel that will remind the reader of the present.  Certainly, the current global refugee crisis came to mind with this description:  “some sixty refugees had attempted last week to swim under the EuroBarrier section of the Long Border in the Mediterranean; some twenty-five survived, the remaining were electrocuted or simply drowned” (16).  The Long Border sounds like Trump’s wall with Mexico, and the description of life in Maskinia could be a description of life in any number of Third World countries.  Ethnic and religious wars, famine, economic subjugation, class divides, science versus faith conflicts, immigration anxieties, and concerns about the dehumanizing effects of technological and scientific advances are all found in our world. 

That is perhaps the strongest element of this novel:  it is set in the future but a future that is not impossible.  Perhaps it is indeed the book that Canadians need now.