A science fictional echo of his classic Generation X, Douglas Coupland's latest novel Generation A imagines a future where fuel is scarce and bees are extinct. Suddenly, five people are stung. Five people with strange molecules in their blood.
After Coupland published the groundbreaking novel Generation X in the early 1990s, surly speculative writer Kurt Vonnegut gave a grumpy speech to some college students in which he scoffed at the term "Generation X" and suggested that they should instead be called "Generation A" since they were "at the beginning of a series of astonishing triumphs and failures." Clearly, that comment is the inspiration for this novel.
Like all of Coupland's novels, Generation A is written in immediately engaging, genuinely funny prose. He's the kind of writer who calls GMO corn a "carb dildo" and gives one of his characters a hilarious obsession with the show Starblazers. Shuttling quickly between the first-person perspectives of his five bee-stung characters - from Sri Lanka to New Zealand - Coupland quickly sketches in a five-mintues-into-the-future world where everything is just a little bleaker than it is today. Transportation has gotten incredibly expensive due to impending peak oil, and everybody seems to have gotten hooked on an antidepressant called Solon that makes time seem to pass more quickly and calms people's fears of the future. And somehow, all the bees in the world have gone extinct, which means no more wildflowers, very little fruit, and (of course) no honey.
Still the world is recognizably our own, especially once it's made familiar to us via the goofy, heartfelt patter of Coupland's characters. Harj survived the Indian Ocean tsunami (but his family didn't) and now he works in a Sri Lankan call center for Abercrombie & Fitch. In his spare time, he's created a fake e-commerce website that sells "celebrity room tones" - audio files that capture what silence sounds like in rooms that famous people live in. Zack creates cock-and-ball-shaped crop circles in his own cornfields; Julien is obsessed with World of Warcraft; Samantha is obsessed with various geotagging games online (creating "earth sandwiches" by taking a picture of a piece of bread on the ground in New Zealand, while somebody across the globe in Spain takes a picture of another piece of bread on the ground); and Diana is an evangelical Christian with Tourette's. And all of them have one thing in common: After they're stung by supposedly-extinct bees, they're scooped up by a team of scientists and forced to undergo weird tests in an underground facility in Atlanta.
The setup for the novel is simply terrific, and the subtext is intriguing from the start. Flowing beneath the surface of this quirky eco-thriller is a meditation on the way media consumption has become both an addiction and form of redemption for our characters - and, by extension, the whole human species. Locked into their quarantine cells in Atlanta, the main characters aren't allowed to have any books, computer, or television. They're forced to contemplate how stark and freaky their lives would be without reading and engaging with the world through everything from music to World of Warcraft. What's particularly smart is the way Coupland makes no distinction between the addictive allure of reading and the distractions of the internet. All are, ultimately, ways of feeding our minds with a combination of beauty and "carb dildo" garbage.
Once the bee-stung are released, they discover they can't return to their old lives. Something about them has changed profoundly, and they need to come together and talk about it. So they accept an invitation from Serge, one of the scientists who studied them, to visit a remote island together where he can study them further - and they can get to know each other. It turns out what Serge really wants them to do is tell stories. He hints mysteriously that this is part of what he's researching, and that storytelling is related to why the bees chose to sting them. We also begin to realize that somehow this research is related to the drug Solon.
The entire second half of the novel is taken up with the stories that our characters tell teach other. Some are clearly based on their life experiences; others are parables about storytelling itself and the meaning of human connection. Taken together, these tales begin to form an organic whole, a portrait of people obsessed with finding the words to explain their experiences even while they are unable to find other people to share those experiences with. It's a risky and weird right-turn for the novel to take, though not unexpected for Coupland. He's known for his joyful experiments with language and form.
While most of the stories were amusing to read, I wound up feeling like this section of the novel was fairly uneven. There were simply too many stories, without any exposition between them, and we lost the thread of the compelling tale that Coupland had set up for us in the riveting first half of the novel. Though the book has a great ending, Coupland simply gets derailed when the characters tell stories instead of figuring out what connects them to each other and the bees. Arguably, storytelling is what connects them, and we get hints from very early in the book that there is a molecule called an "eon" that is released into the bloodstream when humans experience stories. But many readers will grow frustrated with Coupland's way of exploring this idea.
Despite these problems, this is one of the rare science fiction novels that will make you laugh out loud. Coupland's comic prose is simply terrific, but never in a way that feels cheap or mean. He's completely in love with his characters, and their weird observations about the world are achingly true. Regardless of whether you adore or ignore the storytelling half of the novel, you'll be amused and diverted. Especially if you've liked Coupland's other novels, you won't want to miss this one.