Landscape With Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson

The Blurb On The Back:

We were all surprised when the vuvv landed the first time.  We were just glad they weren’t invading.  We couldn’t believe our luck when they offered us their tech and invited us to be part of their Interspecies Co-Prosperity Alliance. 

Several years on, jobs are scarce due to the rise of alien tech and there’s no money for food, clean water, or the vuvv’s miraculous medicine.  Adam and his girlfriend, Chloe, must get creative to survive.  Since the vuvv crave “classic” Earth culture, recording 1950s-style dates for them to view seems like a brilliant idea.

But it’s hard for Adam and Chloe to murmur sweet nothings when they hate each other more with every episode.  Soon enough, Adam must decide how far he’s willing to go – and what he’s willing to sacrifice. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

17-year-old Adam Costello lives on an alternate Earth with his mother and 12-year-old sister.  This Earth has been visited by the vuvv (an alien species who look like granite coffee tables) since the 1940s.  When they finally reveal themselves, it’s to offer the benefits of their superior technology and invite the planet to join the Interspecies Co-Prosperity Alliance.  Humanity leaps at the chance to cure world hunger, disease and gain new opportunities but as vuvv technology begins to take over, human businesses become obsolete and close, increasing unemployment levels and highlighting the divide between rich and poor as even middle class families like Adam’s get squeezed and face destitution.

When Adam’s mother rents out part of their house to the Marsh family, Adam falls in love with their daughter, Chloe.  With the vuvv obsessed with 1950s America, Adam and Chloe realise that they can make money by carrying out their dates in the style of 1950s teenagers and screening them to vuvv subscribers.  But the longer Adam and Chloe date, the more they realise how much they annoy each other until love turns to hate and the fate of Adam’s family turns on the sacrifices he’s willing to make …

M T Anderson’s YA SF novel is a slim but very good satirical riff on the dystopian genre that exposes the inequalities inherent in contemporary society and postulates what happens when we meet an alien species that’s better at capitalism than humans are with a dry wit and a fine eye for human hypocrisy and tendency to self-deception.

Adam is an interesting protagonist – a gifted artist who prefers using paint to the 3D VR formats generated by vuvv technology but who suffers from Merrick’s Disease (a digestive disorder caused by the unhygienic tap water that leads to uncontrollable diarrhoea).  It’s through Adam that the reader learns about the vuvv influenced world and I really enjoyed the sharp wit he displays but also his sense of powerlessness (which in part comes through seeing how helpless his mum is with her constant percentages of possible success) and how badly he wants to change his situation.  One of my favourite scenes in the book involves his anger at seeing how his favourite art teacher (who doubles as a doorman for a vuvv built block inhabited by rich humans able to escape the world below literally) is treated by rich brats and condescending adults who expect his gratitude when they give him their leftover food.

Adam’s romance with Chloe is also interesting as he goes from the first attraction to love only to see that wear thin on both sides.  If I have a complaint, it’s that Chloe is a little shallowly drawn to the point that at times she seems two-dimensional – in part because Anderson implies that she turns against Adam in part because of the embarrassing nature of his disease and in part because they are forced to live with each other 24/7 which robs the romance of some of its mystique – and certainly her behaviour in the final quarter of the book read to me like villain caricature that’s there to make the reader hate her.

The vuvv are thinly sketched but still fascinating.  I enjoyed their obsession with 1950s Americana and refusal to allow humanity to advance or demonstrate anything below that almost as much as I enjoyed the way Anderson cleverly shows sections of humanity as playing into that, trying to emulate the vuvv and doing whatever it takes to make them happy.  This is a takeover with consent and Anderson deftly shows what that entails and how it exacerbates existing inequalities in society (with some dialogue echoing sentiments commonly seen expressed by the rich and by right wing politicians).

The humour in the book is bone dry at times but Anderson also writes some excruciating set pieces – none more so than a scene towards the end that literally had me putting the book down at one point because I couldn’t bear to read what was happening.

My only other criticism of the book would be that while the ending does provide a resolution to Adam’s story, I can imagine it disappointing some readers.  For me it was completely in keeping with the spirit of the book but I think some readers will find it downbeat in the circumstances.

All in all, I think this is a really entertaining, sharply observed and fierce read that offers a great take on YA dystopia, some sharp humour and like all good SF makes readers think about the world they’re currently living in a little more critically.

LANDSCAPE WITH INVISIBLE HAND was released in the United Kingdom on 1st February 2018.  Thanks to Walker Books for the review copy of this book.

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