Buddhist Science Fiction: Brook Ziporyn's The Masochistic Playpen

Everything is other to itself. When you examine any experience, any person or object, including oneself--if you focus on it intensely and question it relentlessly--it proves to be ungraspable, unlocatable. This moment is immediately present, yet impossible. It can only appear as something else, some otherness: its parts, its past, its excluded possibilities. Every self must have an other, a necessary outside which simultaneously defines and threatens it. And this line between the outside and the inside, the world and the self, is also impossible. Under close scrutiny, the borders between things slip through our fingers, revealing the openness and ambiguity of what seemed so solid, so sure.

In a sense, selfhood is an act of aggression. We create our identities by consuming others, by digesting our experience and incorporating it into ourselves. But, like any contrast, the split between self and world is reversible--it can be read both ways, from either side. To see is to be seen. Our prey is also our predator. The world lurks in the shadows of our uncertainty, licking its lips in anticipation. But self and world, inside and outside, are ultimately indistinguishable. Me-ness is always already otherness, and vice versa. So the mutual violence at the heart of existence is nothing but self-violence. We are our own trauma. This self-contrast, this impossibility of being ourselves, is our true identity. It is our beauty, and our tragedy.

Brook Ziporyn's The Masochistic Playpen is a mind-blowing exploration of metaphysical self-violence, a masterwork of darkly comedic science fiction that bravely blurs the line between pleasure and pain, compassion and contempt. While Ziporyn's Omnipotence For The Millions is earthbound, The Masochistic Playpen is a free-wheeling romp through endless worlds and identities. Humans have yet to discover other intelligent life, and have successfully colonized just about every planet in the galaxy, even the ridiculously uninhabitable ones. A handful of huge, invisible corporate conglomerates own and control everything, and everything is information. Television isn't just a time-killer--it is life itself. And human cloning is outlawed, but everyone does it. The protagonist, Chet Everett (if that's his real name!), is a freelance assassin hired by a surly, alcoholic mega-corporate executive for an obscure and extremely dangerous long-term assignment. Everett must go undercover, teleporting from planet to planet and terminating a long list of radical, trouble-making clones. He is lazy but gifted, a natural. He found his ideal occupation as an adolescent--his first victim was his mother. And after thirty years in deep, cryogenic sleep (a desperate attempt to escape arrest and execution), he continues his dirty work as a paid killer and trained disintegration traveler, "with some knowledge of multiple world information etiquette and paradox technology."

Everett knows his ultimate goal: to infiltrate the heavenly resort-colony of Pleasure Land and put an end to one Doctor Foostavius, a legendary guru and TV talk show host, and an infamous clone-maker of epic proportions. But, unfortunately for him, Everett must bounce to many more planets and kill an indefinite series of other clones (or "duplicated individuals," to be PC) before reaching this final gig. Each new world is a shock to the system for our assassin. He must constantly acclimate to strange environments, uncertain identities, local cultures and customs that range from idiotic to absurd: Parenthesia, Baswik, Tumblov, Remoose... a colorful procession of worlds and perspectives. One of my favorites is Chelican, home to monks that preach an inverted mysticism, a cult of the ego that encourages everyone to be as self-centered as possible. But Everett is kept in the dark concerning his employer's plans and motives, and Pleasure Land never seems to get any closer. He becomes frustrated and suspicious--even his boss might be a clone.

As the title would suggest, self-conflict is everywhere in this novel. Everett is aware of a spectator in the back of his skull, someone amused by his painful dilemmas. Source individuals despise and dehumanize their clones. Everett himself must betray and murder his lovers and colleagues. Even the elementary particles hate themselves--disgust is a fundamental force of the universe. And this self-violence is mutual violence, as embodied by the galactic obsession with television. Everything is being recorded, everything is being watched: to see is to be seen. The Masochistic Playpen is unparalleled in capturing the voyeurism and paranoia of the information age. But the crucial Buddhist point here is that this violence reflects our deep interconnection and interdependence. In a profound way, this necessary, intimate violence reflects our solidarity. It is even possible to describe it as compassion itself, for this inescapable intersubjectivity is both our suffering and our liberation. The Buddha himself is the Other, the omniscient spectator that knows us from the inside-out.

1 comment:

gene said...

Sounds like some good sci-fi with a lot of interesting ideas. Will recommend this one for my book club, thanks.