Gish Jen’s fifth novel imagines a dystopia so chillingly plausible that an entire review could be spent simply describing its components. To do that, however, would scant the provocative ideas that underpin her gripping tale of a family confronting the digitally empowered authoritarian state. “The Resisters” depicts a society transformed, though not beyond recognition, "by AI and Automation — now rolled up with the internet into the iBurrito we called Aunt Nettie,” Jen’s narrator, Grant, sardonically informs us.
He is describing AutoAmerica, where he lives with his wife, Eleanor, and their daughter Gwen, whose phenomenal gift for pitching a baseball sets the plot in motion. But the same sinister convergence of technologies also rules in rival superpower ChinRussia, reportedly even closer to total social control. No one knows for sure, because travel between AutoAmerica and ChinRussia ended when Ship’EmBack went into effect.
In AutoAmerica, “we did still have a Constitution,” Grant notes. But corporations are now protected under the 14th Amendment, and every step in the ongoing curtailment of human rights is justified as Redoubling the effort to outdo ChinRussia. AutoAmerica’s citizens are divided into the privileged Netted, who get jobs and homes on dry land, and the superfluous Surplus, who don’t. Grant, once a teacher, and Eleanor, an erstwhile lawyer still using her training to challenge AuntNettie, are among the millions whose professions have been “discontinued” in the cascade of automation that began by replacing factory workers and moved on through blue-collar and white-collar jobs to government functions.
Those classified as Surplus, Grant notes, “somehow include everyone coppertoned, as well as everyone spy-eyed, like Eleanor, and everyone odd-bodied, not to say odd-godded.” The Surplus must be microchipped and live in AutoHouses (most of these actually AutoHouseboats on the ever-rising sea waters), so they can be surveilled and tracked. Their only approved activity is consuming the excessive amounts of merchandise and packaged food wildly overproduced by the Netted. For this they get Living Points, “more critical than money for everything from getting a loan to getting a plane ticket to getting Gwen into NetU.” This last goal, which requires a nearly unattainable number of points, offers one of the few ways for someone classified as Surplus to be invited to Cross Over into the Netted world.
Jen doesn’t over-explain individual elements of her richly textured dystopia; she assumes we can deduce the meanings of her bitingly witty neologisms and the substance of laws like Ship’EmBack from their roots in ugly present-day discourse. Similarly, Grant’s rueful conclusion that he and many others unwittingly enabled surveillance and automation with their use of AuntNettie’s seductively convenient tools will perhaps give pause to anyone who shops online, uses an Internet search engine, or participates in social media.
But “The Resisters “ is fiction, not a tract. As in all Jen’s previous novels, from “Typical American” in 1991 through “World and Town” in 2010, political and social concerns are embedded in the interactions of family members and those around them.
Gwen rolls her eyes over her parents’ lameness like any adolescent, and she and best friend Ondi have the sort of intimate, intermittently toxic relationship common among teenage girls. But the issue of whether Gwen should try out for the official Netted baseball league and attend NetU is intertwined with her mother’s legal battles to use what remains of the Constitution to protect the rights — in fact, the very lives — of the Surplus population. And Ondi has family reasons of her own for arguing that resistance is futile; she buttresses this argument by getting Gwen’s family “black-coded.” Eleanor has previously been arrested and tortured; now, as an official enemy of the state, she could be killed with impunity. If Gwen agrees to play in the Olympics against ChinRussia, it might keep Eleanor safe, or it might just give Aunt Nettie another means of manipulating Gwen and her parents.
Over the course of three decades, Jen’s social and psychological observations have only sharpened, while her marvelous humor has darkened. The AutoHouse’s repeated verbal offers of unwanted assistance, punctuated by the grimly ironic refrain, You have a choice. You always have a choice, are typical of her wit in “The Resisters”: amusing but vaguely menacing, frequently with a sting to follow — Do note that your choice is on the record. Alert as always to the demands of storytelling and character development, she crafts a suspenseful, deftly plotted narrative that climaxes with Gwen pitching against ChinRussia in the final game of the Olympics. Conflicted, unhappy Ondi plays a pivotal role in the wrenching denouement, which gives highly equivocal answers to the existential questions posed throughout the novel.
Does “right make might,” as Grant and Eleanor taught Gwen? Sometimes. Are human beings by nature resisters, or collaborators? They are both. Have we created technology that knows us better than we know ourselves? That’s a big maybe. Jen’s closing pages invite optimism about the prospects for change, but everything that precedes them warns us not to underestimate AuntNettie’s tenacity. The full quote from Abraham Lincoln that Jen chooses as an epigraph suggests her artistic and political conviction: “Let us have faith that right makes might.”
By Gish Jen
Knopf, 320 pp., $26.95
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post and was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle’s citation for excellence in reviewing.