OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
Cycling to Asylum – by Su J. Sokol
Publisher: Deux Voiliers Publishing, Aylmer, Quebec, Canada, 2014.
Cover Art: Lin-Lin Mao
Laek is a ninth grade history teacher at a school in Red Hook, Brooklyn. His wife Janie is a Lawyer serving as a Public Defender at the New York City Housing Court. Both prestigious but politically dangerous professions. They have a twelve-year-old daughter, Siri, who loves baseball and is starting to be interested in boys, and a younger son, Simon, who is old enough to dream of revenge.
All of them love New York, despite the increasingly ubiquitous presence of authoritarian power slowly reducing citizenship rights, but Laek has more reason to be paranoid than most citizens. In his youth he ran with an activist group that ran afoul of the authorities. He has been hidden in plain sight ever since. Now, however, he has been warned the increasing sophistication of surveillance technology and computer programs render his arrest inevitable, which is to say, his death. It’s time for Laek and his family to flee the country. Montreal has declared itself an International Sanctuary City. Best to go there. And soon, as two unexpected and thoroughly unpleasant encounters with the police make it clear that would be a good idea.
Let me state from the outset that this is a very mature novel with complex, realistic characters far beyond the usual potboiler approach to political adventure dystopia-type stuff wherein characters are usually an after-thought and really just window-dressing to pad out the plot. In this novel the vast majority of details and insights are present to paint the characters and their motivations and feelings in depth. In other words, this is the sort of novel I normally avoid like the plague.
You see, I be a fan of concept-driven fiction. An ideal novel would involve discovering an alien artifact (or spaceship, or ruined city) on another planet and trying to figure out what it was for and whether or not it was dangerous. Couldn’t care less about the sex life of the protagonist. After all, most characters in novels seem to be more active sexually than I ever was, and with greater variety, coupled with emotional angst to beat the band. That is mundane junk! Who cares about mundane angst? Get to the plot!
I hated parts of many an old war movie on B&W TV when I was a kid, with their prolonged periods of flash-back “mushy stuff” about love triangles interrupting the action bits. Quite a few old SF films ruined by “love interest” as well. So, when I started to read literature, say the writings of D.H. Lawrence, I was horrified to discover the same infestation and lack of proper focus. It was as if the adult world was obsessed with sex. I was too, but only on a personal level. I didn’t want to read about other people’s adventures and problems with emotional life, I wanted to have some of my own. I’m probably the only sixteen-year-old in North America who lived through 1967’s “Summer of Love” without once getting laid. Isn’t that sad? Nope. It’s boring. See what I mean? Other people’s sex lives and/or emotional lives are boring. I don’t understand why learning how fictional characters relate to their gonad impulses is the prerequisite for a “proper” novel. Doesn’t stir my sense of wonder.
But I digress (to put it mildly). Fact is the plot advancement and background setting in this novel are so seamlessly interwoven into the character studies that I felt like a fly on the wall observing their plight moment by moment. Not all the chit chat advanced the plot, but every word of it did deepen and broaden my understanding of the characters. The more I read, the deeper I was hooked. I began to care about them. Toward the end of the novel I was quite concerned and worried as to whether or not their petty misunderstandings in their relationships was going to ruin their lives or not. For the author to draw that much emotional commitment out of me is remarkable; indeed, nothing short of a miracle.
Especially when you consider the unusual structure of the novel. Prior to reading it I had glanced at a number of reviews and online comments and ascertained the narrative was divided into sections reflecting the point of view of family members in turn. My impression was that this was, in effect, the same story being retold four times, and I thought “Boy, that’ll slow things down.” In truth each character picks up where the last left off, though often with a bit of meditation on what just happened, but the pace is lively enough that the plot always advances. A trifle more slowly than most novels, perhaps, but the amount of revealing detail keeps your interest (or, at least, certainly kept my interest), and pulls the reader deeper into the book.
Take Simon, for instance. A precocious boy in some ways, taking a keen interest in a Holo Cube game about preventing certain species from going extinct. However, not yet being familiar with the reality of the real world, so to speak, is convinced his game animals are as “real” as animals in zoos or other countries. After all, as his youthful logic puts it, “They are the same species.” He does know his fighting Holo games aren’t quite real, but, on the other hand, his approach to real world violence is about the same, that it isn’t quite real either. Thus, knowing something about what happened to his daddy, he fantasises about killing the “bad policeman” responsible and makes it his life’s goal.
Tosh, you say? No little kid would think that? I’ve got news for you. That fantasy consolidates the realism underlying Simon’s character. When I was a little kid I was badly bullied in Grade School. Walking home every day, I would go blocks out of my way to avoid the bullies waiting for me on certain street corners. Not always successfully. My older brother had some kind of hunting knife in a sheath. Sometimes, when home alone, I’d put it on and pretend I was at school, occasionally pulling it out as if flashing it before the eyes of the bullies. I believed they’d stand back in awe and leave me alone. However, I did vaguely suspect it was probably not a good idea to wear it to school because maybe, just maybe, I might get into trouble. With my brother for sure, and possibly with my mom and dad. Fact is, it takes a certain amount of growing up to be able to cope with the real world, even when you’re still a little kid. Let’s just say I found his less-than-realistic view of the real world quite believable.
His father, Laek, isn’t much better. He is a severely repressed individual, constantly terrified of disintegrating in public in an uncontrollable wave of panic and rage because of what happened in the past and the likelihood it will rebound on his family. Outwardly, he is a passive and easygoing individual, everyone’s friend, but it doesn’t take much to set him off. A very nice psychological touch is having him insist on speaking only French when they are in Quebec. This allows him to distance himself from his “English” thought patterns which threaten to betray him. Coincidentally, this habit of speaking only French endears him to Quebec authorities. So, it’s a useful trait.
A tendency to rely on fantasy to cope with life makes him, in a sense, similar to his son. Laek has a safe mental space he retreats to in times of stress, the “New Metropolis” which is a utopian fantasy city he mentally explores when he is physically or mentally under assault. So it makes sense that he refers to the hoped-for sanctuary of Montreal as “New Metropolis.”
It is easy to see Laek as weak. He’s certainly passive and incapable of making decisions since his instinct is to hide and avoid attracting attention. But his wife Janie loves him for, among other reasons, his stubborn tenacity and ability to shed the effects of confrontation (after a withdrawn recovery period) as if nothing happened. He can be hurt, but he can’t be destroyed. Especially when his friends are there to help him. However, he is constantly under threat. His survival is not guaranteed. Part of the tension of the novel.
Janie is the practical one. Always coping from a more or less level emotional keel. But husbanding her husband, so to speak, can be quite wearing, especially when he withdraws into himself and refuses to communicate. Love conquers all, but sometimes it seems like an imminent conquest on the verge of a Pyrrhic victory. Laek has passive tenacity, but her tenacity is proactive and ever alert. They have a surprisingly dynamic relationship. They’d be lost without each other.
Siri is the family member most apart from the others. She is at an age when she is just beginning to set up a life of her own, particularly when it comes to boys. She is no longer inclined to share 100% of her life with her parents, or her brother. She has begun to keep secrets. She has begun to enjoy aspects of her life as if she were already off by herself. She has the most to lose by suddenly decamping to another country. She resents it. Especially since, in order not to worry her, they haven’t fully explained why the move was necessary. To her it is all some crazy arbitrary adult whim that has ruined her life. Her refusal to adapt, refusing to speak French, for instance, puts the family’s refugee application at risk. Her own tenacity and stubbornness threatens to tear the family apart. May well result in it being destroyed. Attempts to placate her just make things worse. Her attitude becomes the principle source of tension and fear late in the book.
All of the characters, each in their own way, constantly deal with uncertainty in the choices they must make, an uncertainty dictated by fears and dreams and paranoia and, above all, by an awareness that they don’t actually know what is going on and can only guess. It’s like fighting a war without knowing anything at all about your enemy. Every attempt to think their way through to a solution is one assumption piled on another and that’s unfortunate because assumptions are like lies, the more they make the more complicated things get, the more unforeseen consequences they have to face. Just like the characters, the plot is many-layered and complex, and is revealed primarily through the medium of the characters’ emotional reactions and concerns. That is the whole point of the book’s emphasis on characterization. It explains everything. I’m hard put to think of any other novel where character is so vital to the structure of the book. An extraordinary achievement, especially for a debut novel. I’m impressed.
What drew me to read the book in the first place were the dystopian elements. This isn’t Escape From New York (if you remember that film). New York is still New York. People still enjoy hot dogs at baseball games and picnics in parks or at the beach. But the city is part of an America where immigrants, even legal ones, are the scapegoat and excuse for laws to tighten in order for the nation to get a firm grip on itself and set things right. This hasn’t happened over night, but in barely noticeable incremental changes and “improvements” to the law. Of course everyone still has the right to say whatever they want, just make sure it isn’t unamerican. Every neighbourhood is a gated community now, in that checkpoints are everywhere. Just another traffic inconvenience, that’s all.
Laek is just as progressive a teacher as he always was, as are his peers. However, the long reach of the Alien Defense and Security service has it’s influence on the curriculum. Nowadays most of the teacher’s liberalism is confined to the teacher’s lounge. They dare not exhibit it in the classroom. They might be deemed unpatriotic. But the situation isn’t so bad, even though they remember it used to be better. They can cope. They can remain true to themselves. Though the latest rumour that it will soon be mandatory to report immigrant students to the authorities has some a trifle upset.
Janie knows civil rights law well. She helps people cope with unjust evictions and illegal arrests. She’s aware civil rights are still in place, mostly, but she is growing increasingly frustrated because legislators keep adding more rights to the police. More and more the courts side with the police in order to maintain public order. The law is like many an evolving computer program. Instead of being rewritten to become more efficient and to serve its purpose (protecting people’s rights) better, the inherent rights remain the same but are being buried under additional laws that render the system unwieldly and incapable of serving its original purpose. Soon, she fears, the justice system will render public advocates obsolete. Already the police view her as some kind of criminal. It’s only a matter of time before the courts do as well.
Published in 2014, this subtle vision of expanding authoritarianism in America is prescient and is now more relevant than ever. I don’t know why the US media pays so much attention to Trump’s pithy and sometimes amusing tweets. They’re a distraction. It is the steady drumbeat of Imperial decrees, I mean laws, he is signing on a near daily basis that is dismantling all the social progress and reforms of the last century. Sure, the Constitution reigns supreme. But I am reminded of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Their constitution, or equivalent, stated very clearly that it was illegal for the State to put anyone to death. Many a Western “useful idiot” (Lenin’s term) quoted this law as proof of the superiority of Soviet Communism. Funny how the KGB and the guys running the Gulag behaved as if they’d never heard of it. When veterans of these organizations were queried in their retirement years after the collapse of Communism, they justified the apparent inconsistency by saying, in effect, “Well, of course it was illegal to put loyal citizens to death, but we had to be practical, otherwise enemies of the people would have ruined the whole country.” And who defined who was an enemy? The authorities.
Just because a law protects you doesn’t mean a law protects you. Depends on how enforcers of the law view the matter. An increase in authoritarianism doesn’t necessarily reveal itself by a parade of guys wearing jackboots. It can be as innocuous and as insidious as subtle changes in the wording and the interpretation of dull and boring regulations, but with a stunning and emotional impact (in the long run) every bit as vivid as secret police breaking down your door in the middle of the night. Above all, the growing darkness descends with incremental shading like a prolonged twilight. Nobody notices everyone is getting used to being blind until it is too late. This novel is very, very subtle in its portrayal of what is likely to happen, and now arguably is happening. The ultimate result, if carried as far as totalitarianism, is fear and paranoia as a normal state of mind. Cycling to Asylum explores that possibility intimately well.
And what of near-future Canada? How is the future of my country portrayed? Well, in the opinion of a radical character, Canada has become the United States’ “Number one lackey,” allowing the US to dictate our foreign policy, for instance. In fact there are a number of people in Canada who think that would be just peachy. They want Canada to be just like the United States as much as possible. Do away with our universal health care, for instance. I consider them traitors. They think of themselves as practical and sensible. Let me just say that election outcomes are a lot more tense for me nowadays. An awful lot at stake. Point is Canada being forced to pivot closer to American policy strikes me as one possible future, by no means unrealistic, even though I, personally, disapprove.
It is the position of Quebec that most interests me about this book. Nothing has spelled out in detail, but the gist of the near-future situation suggests that Quebec has been granted more autonomy in a desperate bid to keep her in Confederation. One may well ask why? It’s not stated, but I believe it’s logical to assume Canada-with-Quebec is much more indigestible from the American point of view than Canada-without-Quebec. This is a card Quebec may well play as needed.
Whether or not Laek and his family are accepted as refugees is up to the Canadian Feds, yes, but also up to Quebec officialdom. And in this book the French Canadians appear to revel in tweaking the nose of English North America, even to the extent of potentially welcoming radicals and subversives, though for what hidden agenda reasons is not explained. I just assume Quebec is portrayed as somehow taking advantage of the political trends in both the United States and Canada very much with an eye to its own distant future.
Having never lived in Quebec, indeed only spent a grand total of four days there, mostly at Expo 67 in Montreal, I’m extraordinarily ignorant about life in that unique Province. I have no idea if the points of view and way of life depicted are dead-on accurate or ever-so-slightly tweaked to match the future vision of the novel. Everything rings authentically true, with many delightful touches, though I suppose some people might dispute the bald statement that the food is better in Montreal than it is in New York. At any rate, Quebec is presented as a near-utopia, at least as compared to the dystopia New York has become, which of course serves well the slight alternate-future theme of the novel. Perfectly valid speculative fiction. Works for me.
Got to say I’m glad I read this book. Much better than I anticipated. Damned good, in fact. Highly recommended.
Also glad to say I hear it has been optioned for a film by an outfit in Vancouver. Has great potential, though it will be difficult to reduce and summarise its sophistication and complexity without becoming pedestrian. Much will depend on the screen writer and the director. I half-seriously suggest the film Alphaville as a role model. Not quite so extreme, perhaps, but it will require an off-the-wall approach to stress its unique flavour, or such is my opinion.
Even better, I hear Sokol is writing a sequel which explores both the family and the dystopian future to greater effect. Definitely looking forward to it.
Check it out at: < Cycling to Asylum >