M.T. Anderson Reflects on Where We Are, Years After His Iconic Book, Feed
I was lucky enough to meet M.T. Anderson, 2009 recipient of YALSA’s Best Books For Young Adults, this week at the library where I work. He was gracious enough to grant an interview for The Hub. With dystopian as the hot thing right now, I wanted to know where he thinks we are going, as readers, and how technology is changing us.
Science fiction often says more about the time period it was written than the imagined future society. What parallels do you see between our current social experience and your imagined world?
I wrote the book back in 2001, and, in my mind, it was actually already about the world I saw back then: a world where I didn’t even have to have a chip installed in my skull — I already heard the voice of advertising all the time, speaking in my thoughts and dreams.
Do you feel current technology is catching up with Feed? For example, the way advertising is sent directly to us on our Facebook pages?
Technological experimentation is making “feeds” more possible every day, at a speed that I find somewhat surprising and disconcerting. For several years now, neuro-electrical scans have mapped what a buying frenzy looks like in the brain. And as of this year, we have managed to transfer movement impulses between humans over a cyberlink. We can force rats to “remember” impulses that they’ve never encountered before by digitally, and then neurologically, encoding those impulses. Intel says they want chips in consumers’ heads by 2020. These products could soon be a reality.
How do you think new technology such as ereaders and tablets are changing our habits as readers?
Tough to say. So far, I think that surfing (and therefore using those devices as browsers) makes far more cognitive difference than simply reading something on a screen. I’m not so worried about e-readers per se, but I am worried about the short attention span and distractability that our cyber-culture breeds.
Feed is often referred to as one of the first definitive dystopian novels. What are your thoughts about the current explosion of this genre?
I think that everyone — Democrat and Republican alike — is starting to realize that things are going off the rails. There is an increasingly chilly distance between the haves and the have nots. (This includes the income differential in American society at the moment, which yawns wider than at any time since the Great Depression.) We all know, but try to forget, that our luxuries are predicated on suffering elsewhere. It’s important to us to try to forget that so we can pretend that everything can go on just as it is now. And I think that dystopian fiction is like the return of the repressed, all of those anxieties reappearing, as we ask: What does it mean when you can’t save everyone? What does it mean to try to be moral when it will cost you your life? What does it mean to be immoral when it will cost someone else’s life? And worst of all: Is kindness merely weakness? Terrifying questions. No wonder we replay them again and again.
With all of the invented language in Feed, why not have new swear words?
The old ones have stood us quite well since an age when warriors in chainmail bellowed them while swinging their broadswords and slicing my monastic Irish forebears in half*. So why switch now?
*On second thought: If my Irish forebears were monastic, I, in theory, shouldn’t be here now. Hmmm.
Violet’s father has an unusual way of speaking because he wants to preserve language. With texting and acronyms such as LOL and TTYL where do you think our use of language is going?
I was more worried about the decay of language when I wrote Feed than I am now. But since then, there has actually been evidence of a slight uptick in literacy among young people. The generation who now are in college have been reading sagas that are thousands of pages long for all of their teenage years. I have great faith in them as readers. I am more worried about my faith in everyone else as humans.
In Octavian Nothing books you use a series of made up letters and documents. What is your inspiration for this?
I love history! And it is built of documents. That’s what survives. That’s what’s left. And I love American history. I’m the sort of person who gets weepy on election day, I love this country and what it instituted so much. But documents also show the confusions and mis-steps of history, things that are easy to see in hindsight but impossible to see in the heat of battle or congressional argument. So they are, in other words, the perfect medium to explore our own imperfect selves.
Who are some of your favorite authors and what are you reading right now?
I can’t even figure out who my favorite authors are any more … I almost never read something without learning something. At the moment, I’m reading and loving the Russian experimentalists of the 1920s and 1930s (I’m working on a book about Leningrad in that era): so Evgeny Zamyatin (writer of one of the prototype dystopian novels — the exquisitely beautiful We), Yuri Olesha, Daniil Kharms, Boris Pilnyak, and the rollicking, cruel, sad comedians known as Ilf and Petrov. These are people whose work I’d never even heard of before, and now I can’t believe I lived without them. Stumbling on stuff like this is one of the great joys not just of reading, but of life.
Kris Hickey is currently reading, Out of Nowhere by Maria Padian.