[SOHO Press; 2020]
Though universal basic income (UBI) received some attention in the US during the recent Democratic presidential primaries thanks to former candidate Andrew Yang, interest has surged around the world as the coronavirus outbreak brings economies to a crawl and unemployment numbers to historic highs. But as Spain prepares for what will be the largest UBI experiment to date, providing a minimum income to millions living below the poverty line, the US’s response has been much more restrained. Though a small coalition of progressive mayors’ plans pilots at the city level, as I write this, Congress continues to debate whether a second stimulus bill should extend a modest increase to unemployment benefits, which conservatives fear might disincentivize labor, a fear they have expressed for years about nearly every frayed thread of the social safety net.
Such abstract concerns, in the face of concrete suffering, drive the plot of Adam Wilson’s latest novel, Sensation Machines. Set in a not-too-distant future New York City, the story picks up shortly after a disastrous administration and a wave of automation have left the country facing yet another recession as well as record unemployment. While nationwide protests have helped push a UBI bill through the House, the country eagerly awaits the decision of the Senate. Of course, not everyone is excited for the bill. While it has gained popular support in blue and red states alike, for investment banker Michael, the UBI, to be financed by taxes on wealth, carbon emissions, and stock trades, has already upended his life. Thanks to his undiversified investment in his own industry, which will be forced to scale back its trading by the new taxes, Michael is now broke, a fact he hopes to change before his wife, Wendy, finds out. Meanwhile, Wendy, who works at Communitiv.ly, a “Think Tank for Creative Synergy and Digital Solutions,” has been tasked, by a mysterious client, with convincing the country that employment is sexy and that a UBI would not only be unfair to those who have already pulled themselves up by their bootstraps but also fail to provide the satisfaction that can only be found in an honest day’s work.
Despite being broke, Michael and Wendy are far from poor, and as change looms on the horizon, their privilege places them next to people with an outsized influence on the course of events. And yet life hasn’t turned out the way either of them had hoped. Both wanted to be writers, to do some good, to start a family, but after years of small compromises and big disappointments, they have settled for simply being rich, Michael selling speculative stories about investment opportunities, Wendy producing branded content for large corporations. Now, Michael and Wendy’s marriage, pegged to the dollar, is on the brink of collapse. Demanding jobs and a stillborn child have already done much to estrange the couple, and thanks to a bed bug infestation, their things are already packed and ready to move. Separated in time and space, attempting to communicate mostly via asynchronous messages, the two even try bringing a third person into their bedroom to bridge the gap, hoping that, without the pressure to satisfy each other, they will finally be able to relax and find the connection they may have never had.
Their relationships with others aren’t much better, as the two reduce most of the people around them to members of various types — Michael tries to collect black friends, Wendy wonders how to persuade paranoid Southern gun nuts — making themselves seem more important and the world more manageable in the process. In his role as satirist, Wilson himself could be charged with this kind of stereotyping as well, though by sticking close to his characters, he convincingly throws his voice. Thankfully, Wilson also eventually breaks from the alternating perspectives of Michael and Wendy to provide glimpses into the complicated lives of the other characters, including Donnell, a flawed but innocent man whose skin color, debt, and station place him in the middle of various narratives that will determine the rest of his life. Such stakes can make the rest of the book’s events seem trivial in comparison, and yet they are inseparable. Profit inevitably comes at the expense of others, usually those who have already paid more than their fair share.
Despite the book’s current relevance, Sensation Machines could have also been published a decade ago, alongside post-Great Recession, New York novels like Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, which engage in similar humorous yet sad searches for the heart of a thoroughly mediated world. Within the book, too, Michael and Wendy seem stuck in a loop, appropriating, remixing, and rebranding culture and history rather than producing anything new. While Michael ditches work to refine his pitch for a book, or something, about rapper Eminem, Wendy impresses her client with mockups of a “Free OJ” campaign. The 2011 Occupy movement is also resurrected here as #Occupy, though made more formidable by a singular focus on basic income. Establishment politics have changed very little, however, with Republicans using time-tested scare tactics to oppose both the bill and its supporters. Meanwhile, centrist Democrats fail to connect the bill to any broader message at all. Instead of framing guaranteed income as a human right in an increasingly automated world, where drones deliver food, medicine, and tear gas, or as a necessary baseline in an ever booming and busting economy, or as just plain common decency, their desire to thread the needle between desperate voters and powerful donors leaves them stalling, waiting for a miracle, or at least the political cover, to resolve the issue without changing anything.
These failures of will and imagination leave the door open for Wendy’s client Lucas Van Lewig, a wealthy video game developer whose popular augmented reality experience, Shamerican Sykosis, has allowed millions to reimagine the world for themselves. Lucas’s new invention offers an alternative solution to the unemployment crisis, a platform that could provide universal employment with no prerequisite skills or education. By allowing capitalism to solve its own problems, the ominous invention, like other techno-fixes, promises a future that does not require us to reckon with the past, a future of growth without struggle, power without responsibility, and reparations without apologies, forever. Reading Sensation Machines between Zoom conferences, social media binges, and remote job searches sharpens the book’s vision of the future. Yet Wilson’s various gadgets are secondary to more lasting concerns of love, grief, inequality, and uncertainty. Wilson wants to believe that human connection, though refracted by capitalism, branding, crises, and augmented reality visors, has not been degraded, that it is not a thing of the nostalgic past or the utopian future but a constant possibility, if we can just stop playing characters in someone else’s game long enough to create it.
Writing about the not-too-distant-future is a risky move. While books like Super Sad True Love Story seem prescient as time passes, unexpected events like the current pandemic threaten to make all our predictions, whether about stocks, elections, or culture, obsolete. But the cycle of boom and bust and the precariousness that billions of people live with every day will remain a certainty as long as we are afraid to change the story. As I write this, the US approaches another election and another recession. Trump and Pence have recently begun to brand Biden as a socialist Trojan horse — attempting to turn Biden’s very emptiness against him — who will allow the radical left to sneak into the White House and destroy the suburbs. Meanwhile, Biden has warned that Russia and China have already begun their expected internet misinformation campaigns. But stories can do more than sell products and mislead people. They can also help us come to terms with our pasts. They can show us new ways of being. And they can motivate us to change, even when doing what we’ve always done is much easier.