My reviews of Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology continue with “How We Got in Town and Out Again,” a story by Jonathan Lethem that was originally published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1996.
Our story is set in an unspecified post-apocalyptic American landscape. Two scavengers, Gloria and Lewis, are trying to get into the nearest town and manage to hook up with a virtual reality production crew en route. The two are soon enrolled in the crew’s VR traveling tournament show, where teens and young adults are fitted for suits and put into immersive virtual environments for up to three hours at a time. The goal is to keep the audience entertained with a variety of adventures in these “Scape-Athons.” But in the end, Gloria doesn’t want her friend Lewis to be exploited and Lewis himself clashes with the production leaders in the end, resulting in their expulsion from the show and forcing them back onto the road.
Lewis is the first-person narrator, a sixteen-year-old wanderer who is implied to be illiterate. He has a fairly simple view of the world based on his own needs, although he does seem to care for Gloria despite being romantically interested in other girls. Gloria, on the other hand, is in her early twenties and is more savvy about how things work and how to con others. But even so, when faced with hucksters and showmen like Kromer and Fearing, she has a limit to how much abuse or indignity she’ll accept. In giving us one naive character and one informed character, we get a good lens into this dark fictional future.
The world in which Lewis and Gloria live seems to be in the aftermath of a great disaster. The land between “towns” is bleak and it’s stated that being “in town” is a highly-sought-after blessing. The story also uses those towns and the traveling virtual reality shows as a kind of twenty-first century circus, as well as a commentary on popular entertainment as a distraction for the masses. It’s acknowledged outright that the contestants are just as alienated about life as the audience, but at least both parties can forget about their sad reality for a while when immersed in a virtual environment of their choosing. The people running the show know this and–like the archetypal Hollywood producer–only care about how much the audience enjoys it and how much money they can make off of it.
There isn’t a lot of flash to this story, though it has a lot of heart. It goes right for the jugular on the issue of mass media and cheap thrills, while pointing out how desperate the people who participate have to be. It’s a commentary on where we are and where we’re going, bleak as the road ahead may seem.
Bibliography: Lethem, Jonathan. “How We Got in Town and Out Again.” Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology. Ed. James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2007.