This is the column I wrote about Zadie Smith’s short story from the New Yorker. The column first appeared in Vector 273, Autumn 2013.
So, a little while ago, we hear that Zadie Smith is to write a science fiction novel. ‘Inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin,’ one source would have us believe, which seems at least plausible. ‘A sci-fi romp,’ says another source, which isn’t, partly because I don’t think Smith could write a romp, but mostly because I’m sure she would never describe anything she wrote that way.
And no sooner does this tantalising news leak out, than lo, an issue of The New Yorker arrives (Aug 12 & 19) with a new story by Zadie Smith, ‘Meet the President!’. Moreover, the story is undeniably science fiction. Is this our first glimpse of the famed Zadie Smith sf novel?
There is nothing to suggest as much in the magazine. The list of contributors only mentions that her latest novel, NW, ‘comes out in paperback this month’. And the story could be read as a standalone piece. But I suspect it is a portion from the (probably as yet unfinished) novel; not the actual opening, I would say, but fairly early in the work when she is still concerned with scene setting. There is a lot of telling us about the world, but much of what she does tell us isn’t fully developed here and needs further detail to make sense. And it ends with an air of anticipation that depends more on factors outside the text than it does on what we have so far seen. Now, of course, it is still perfectly possible that this is a standalone, that she perhaps wrote the story as a practice piece to help her get into genre, or maybe it’s a pendant to the novel, an idea that arose during her work on the novel but that didn’t actually fit into the book. But if so, I find the story unsatisfactory for precisely the reasons that make me think it has been chopped out of the novel.
So let us look at what we do find here.
We open with a challenge: ‘What you got there, then?’ (73).
The person being challenged is a boy, Bill Peek (worth noting that he is only ever called by his full name, never ‘Bill’ or ‘Peek’, or else is simply described as ‘the boy’); and what he has is an AG 12, an advanced games console cum web interface cum whatever he is impatient to use for the first time. ‘All week long he had been hoping for a clear day to try out the new technology’ (73); we never do discover why he should need a clear day, what we learn of the technology doesn’t seem to depend on the weather. And ‘new technology’ does seem like an awkward term; we are already living in a society in which technology of all sorts is part of our everyday lives, and when we acquire more we tend to be specific (a new phone, a new games console) or else talk casually of a new bit of kit. It is as if the author, as much as the reader, is feeling her way into what this world is. And, indeed, that first line is a strong opening, but we do have to wonder what it is that causes the old woman to issue her challenge, because we get the impression that Bill Peek is not so much carrying this new technology as wearing it, or it might even be integral to his body. The fact that it is on is shown by a green light around the boy’s head, and he controls it by touching ‘the node on his finger to the node at his temple, raising the volume’ (73).
Bill Peek, therefore, represents, or perhaps even embodies, technology. And it is the technology that gives the title, because meeting the president is the climax of the game he is about to play, though in all other respects the game is no more than a background to, or distraction from, what is really going on in the story. Technology, of course, is what science fiction is all about, at least to those who are not fully immersed in the genre, so there had to be technology in this story, but it is far from being the most interesting part of the story just as Bill Peek is far from being the most interesting character.
Let’s go back to that challenge. It is issued by an old woman, Melinda Durham. The story is told in the third person but it is seen through Bill Peek’s eyes, and so from his perspective she is mostly identified as the old woman, though she is also called ‘Melinda’ or even ‘Melly’. In contrast to the austerely technological Bill Peek, therefore, Melly is messy and human. And while we never quite get a handle on Bill Peek (he’s a boy, yes, almost fifteen, but he can at times seem very much more mature than that, at times very much younger), the AG 12 gives precise information on Melinda: ‘Forty-nine years old, type O, a likelihood of ovarian cancer, some ancient debt infraction – nothing more’ (73). Normally, giving her age like that would be intended to generate a response of ‘that’s not old’, and so make us think that Bill Peek is really very young. There may, indeed, have been something of that in Smith’s thinking, but everything we are told about her suggests far greater age: ‘A hand, lousy with blue veins … Hair as white as paper. A long, shapeless black dress, made of some kind of cloth, and what appeared to be a pair of actual glasses’ (73). If Bill Peek is technology, young, futuristic and slightly inhuman; Melinda is the environment, and the environment is hard, has aged her. And this opens up the most interesting but problematic part of the story.
We know exactly where and when this story is set. We are in Felixstowe, and ‘A hundred years earlier, almost to the very month, a quaint flood had killed only forty-eight people’ (73). The Great Storm of 31 January/1 February 1953 killed 1,836 people, 48 0f them in Felixstowe (see Garry Kilworth’s autobiography, On My Way to Samarkand, for a description of what it was like to be a child caught in that storm). So we know this is 2053, just 40 years from now. Yet an awful lot has changed in those 40 years. In the story we are told that Felixstowe, which has ‘retreated three miles inland’ (74), has a population of 850. In the 2001 census, the town had a population of over 29,300. That’s an awful lot of people to lose in so short a time. Obviously the cause is climate change, or so we must assume, after all ‘the place had been serially flooded, mostly abandoned’ (73). But there is something odd about this climate change. Felixstowe is always described in terms of grey skies, dark clouds, threatened rain, highly appropriate if it is a place that floods often. But elsewhere we learn that Scotland is tropical while Norway has a tsunami season while Mexico, where Bill Peek and his father will be going in the morning, does not exactly sound like the burned out hell it would be if Scotland had become tropical. This information about Scotland, Norway, Mexico, is very carefully placed, very deliberately done, but within the narrow confines of this story it does not actually cohere into a reasonable and convincing picture of the world. Much more is needed to make sense of the world we are being shown, which is one of the reasons I suspect this is cut from a longer work.
But more than just the weather has changed. Something socially has changed just as dramatically. Remember that black dress ‘made of some kind of cloth’? Our first thought, when we read something like that, is: so what is his clothing made from? But the second thought is: there’s a class distinction being marked out here. The very first description we encounter of the old woman, and the nine-year-old girl who accompanies her, Agatha Hanwell, always referred to as ‘Aggie’, is: ‘local, typically stunted, dim’ (73). There’s a sneer in this, the privileged boy looking down on the unprivileged, but there’s more than that, there’s a suggestion that the local people are physically and mentally different from the technological elite represented by Bill Peek. There’s a suggestion that Bill Peek’s family did come from this area, but he does not, he was born in Bangkok, he is an international child of the Pathways Global Institute where he had been enrolled ‘From the age of six months’ (76), and his peripatetic life has taken him to Paris, New York, Shanghai, Nairobi, Jerusalem, Tokyo and next to Mexico, above all he belongs to Incipio Security Group which employs his father and which is clearly above nationality. We’re in a familiar corporate future here where, as he says bitingly to Aggie, ‘If you can’t move, you’re no one from nowhere’ (76). The corporation keeps its people secure, comfortable, well fed; but the locals have no one to look after them, hence they are physically stunted, hence Melly’s likelihood of ovarian cancer, Aggie’s ‘eighty-five-per-cent chance of macular degeneration’ (73). In addition, Bill Peek has his ‘Augmentor … [and] … complementary systems’ (75), he’s wired to a system that tells him everything he needs to know, instantly. The locals don’t have that, they are cut out of the system, hence they are ‘dim’.
This is the heart of the story: the contrast between Bill Peek, who may once have been from this part of England but is now one of the international, technologically privileged elite, and Aggie Hanwell, from the same part of the country but condemned by environment and lack of access to technology.
Melly writes herself out of the story quite quickly. She is escorting Aggie to the laying-out of her sister, Maud, a 12-year-old whore, ‘so whorish she looked like a crone’ (74), but clearly doesn’t want to be burdened with the task. She makes the excuse of going to look for her rosary, and disappears. Bill Peek, so absorbed in the game he is playing via his AG 12, doesn’t even notice that he’s been left to look after the girl. In fact, it is twenty minutes later that he finally realises he has been left to look after the girl. She is a wonderment to him, not because she is mysterious, but because she so precisely matches something he had learned in school but never encountered in reality, ‘Never before had he met someone like this, who could move only in tiny local spirals’ (76). He tries to ignore her – ‘He succeeded in unpeeling the girl from his body, and strode on down the beach, firefighting a gang of Russian commandoes as they parachuted into view’ (75) – but ends up substituting for Melly and conducting Aggie to the laying-out, though more as an exercise he can record and show off to his tutor than out of any fellow human feeling.
All this while the escalating drama of the game continues, until Bill Peek is on the point of bursting into the Oval Office and meeting the President; ‘there was a certain amount of kudos granted to any boy who successfully met the President in good, if not record, time, on his first run-through’ (76). But just as he is on the point of this climax to his detached and elite experience, so his journey in reality reaches its climax and they enter the crowded make-do chapel where Maud is laid-out. Now we learn that Maud was killed by a drone strike: ‘They took her from the sky. Boom! “Public depravity.” I mean, I ask you!’ (77). At last we understand the objects that have been noted in the sky several times during the course of the novel, and if Aggie is correct that ‘one of them thing’s been following me, since the pier – even before that’ (75), then Melly’s flight might simply be to avoid being collateral damage. Indeed, while Bill Peek was imaginatively fighting off Russian commandoes, he might well have been unintentionally protecting Aggie from the drones. But public depravity does not make sense, using a drone to kill a 12-year-old prostitute does not make much sense. Anyway, why should they then target nine-year-old Aggie, who does not seem to be a prostitute, though ‘She had an innocence that practically begged to be corrupted’ (75)? Besides, ‘Bill Peek could think of more than a few Pathways boys of his acquaintance who wouldn’t hesitate to take her under the next boardwalk and put a finger inside her. And the rest’ (75), a thought that bespeaks an attitude about the sexual availability of the poor, dim locals that belies any general practice of killing off whores by drone strike. No, it seems far more likely that Maud was killed, and Aggie is being targeted, because of Jimmy Kane, who ‘was a fella of Maud’s, her main fella. He flew in and then he flew out – you never knew when he’d be flying in again. He was a captain in the Army. He had an old one of them … but said it still worked’ (75). One of them is the sort of AG 12 rig that Bill Peek uses, and which we later learn were ‘security risks, easily hacked’ (76). This is all we learn of Jimmy Kane, though it is enough to suggest a better reason for the drone strike than public depravity. But all the story gives us is the odd clue pointing in this direction, but no solution, no reason to believe that this is why it happened. We have the beginning of a mystery, the opening up of the first part of a plot, but not its development, another reason for thinking is is extracted from a longer work. (We might also wonder why Bill Peek’s high-powered father should entrust him with something that is a security risk, a nugget of information that is simply dropped into the story without adequate explanation but which cries out for further development.)
We are left, in the last line of the story, with a sensation ‘that there was someone or something else in that grim room, both unseen and present, and coming for him as much as for anybody’ (77). That sensation, that unseen presence, is story. There is much here that needs to be unravelled, about the environmental changes that have occurred and about the social changes that resulted, and about the murder of a 12-year-old girl. There is a novel that needs to unravel that, and if this story is not part of the forthcoming novel, then too much is missing to make it entirely satisfactory on its own.
Quotations taken from ‘Meet The President!’ by Zadie Smith, The New Yorker, August 12 & 19, 2013, pp73-77.