August 12, 2013

"Meet the President!"

By Zadie Smith
~4700 words

In a dystopian future, a cosmopolitan adolescent testing a virtual reality device is interrupted by a pair of downtrodden locals.

Fourteen-year-old Bill Peek knows no nationality other than that of the Incipio Security Group, the global surveillance firm for which his father works. As the story opens, he stands on a desolate beach in Felixstowe, England while his father inspects a nearby facility. Reduced to a squalid little town of 850, Felixstowe sits amid the vast swampland known as England, where "[t]he only people left […] were the ones who couldn't leave." (A clever allusion to the Felixstowe flood of 1958—"A hundred years earlier, almost to the very month, a quaint flood had killed only forty-eight people"—places the story in the year 2058, though the exact nature of the calamity that brings about the bleak landscape is never revealed.) Confronted by two locals, a woman and a little girl on their way to a funeral, Bill Peek is torn between his "empathy for the dispossessed" (prized by his instructors at the Pathways Global Institute) and his desire to participate fully in the sprawling fantasy world of his new toy.

In one sense, this story may be read a cautionary fable about the dangers of technology in the age of the surveillance state. That is certainly a timely message, though not a particularly original one. In a second sense, it might interpreted as a kind of allegory of social differentiation and class privilege. That, too, is interesting but not particularly original.

The story's real potential, I think, lies in its characters, primarily in Bill Peek's character, since everything is told from his perspective. In this third sense, unfortunately, the story comes up short. One problem is that the narrator always refers to the protagonist as Bill Peek, never just plain old Bill, creating a subtle distance that undermines the play for the reader's sympathy:
That's how much my father loves me, Bill Peek thought hopefully, that's how much he wants me around.
Additionally, though there is an admirable amount of complexity in Bill Peek's character, the unfamiliar circumstances of the setting keep us from grasping the full significance. Sure, some of it comes through: he's a futuristic version of the military brat, a supranational being whose entire childhood has unfolded in the protective bubble of the Incipio Security Group. But we need more than that. How are we to interpret, for example, the choices Bill Peek makes in his virtual simulation:
He picked out a large pair of breasts, for reasons of his own, and a long, scaled tail, for purposes of strangulation.
Come on. You can't just throw out a detail like that without the slightest explanation. What are these mysterious "reasons of his own"? Is Bill Peek transgendered? Does he harbor a secret desire to be a mermaid? Maybe he's just a typical alienated teen? We aren't allowed to know, and that's a shame. Besides thwarting our ability to understand his interaction with the locals, which is rich in dramatic and psychological potential, the cipher of Bill Peek's character shrouds the story's final sentences in unnecessary enigma.

"Meet the President!" is an ambitious tale that satisfies on a superficial level but disappoints on a deeper one.


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