Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Infinite Jest as Science Fiction

Andrew Findlay

This article’s shtick is reviewing great science fiction, so before I start in on my review, I’ll make my case that this book belongs here. What are some major features of science fiction?

1. Takes place in the future

2. Strange changes in government, cartography, or the overall structure of the world

3. Extrapolated technologies

4. Thematic development of the plot centers around a certain piece of technology

All of these characteristics are strong predictors of science fictional status, and all are strongly present in Infinite Jest. We’ll take it number by number.

Infinite Jest takes place in a (#1) near-future America. It’s hard to tell exactly, but Stephen Burns estimates that the time of the main part of the book roughly matches 2009. That’s fifteen years in the future from the 1994 date of publication. In this future, the reigning method of North American political interaction is O.N.A.N.ism (#2). I don’t think there’s ever been a more intentional masturbation joke, but O.N.A.N. stands for the Organization of North American Nations, a souped-up NAFTA in which the American president basically has the final say on everything. One of the things the president does is create the Great Concavity, where the far northeast of the U.S.A is given to Canada, and then becomes a massive, region-wide landfill.

Fuck you, Montpelier!

Every single bit of America’s waste is sent to that place, which is now legally Canada, so America does not have to deal with it. There’s even a new term for this unprecedented gifting of land to a neighboring country: experialism. There’s also (#3) a bunch of new technologies. I’ll start with a big one: unlimited clean energy. Well, kind of clean. Annular fusion is the whole reason for drowning Vermont and Maine in toxic waste and creating what Americans call the Great Concavity. Annular fusion is a counterintuitive clean energy system that uses hideous amounts of toxic material to initiate fusion that is so clean that it not only purifies the materials used in the process but also sucks every toxin and radioactive particle out of every location in a wide circumference. The whole reason they have to send massive amounts of waste into the area is that the process of annular fusion removes every poison from everything in the area, leading to massive, lush, unbelievable overgrowth. This entails huge trees, lush grass, even gigantic animals and insects.¹

Continual bombardment with poison is the only way to keep these animals/plants from growing out of control and taking over the surrounding areas. DFW includes many additional near-future innovations in this novel, but the most important one is Infinite Jest. The book title references a short film from within the novel itself, a piece of video technology (#4) that is central to the plot and theme. Infinite Jest is an unreleased video that is so entertaining or appealing that, once someone starts watching it, it is so pleasurable that they never stop… ever. Police would know that someone died from watching the video when they saw a self-befouled, dehydrated husk sitting in a recliner. That is, they would know that if the electricity to the entertainment system had been cut. If it hadn’t and the video was still running, they would just sit down and watch, and the exact same thing would happen to them.

This is great! Let’s do this until we die.

Whenever people hear of Infinite Jest, they don’t think science fiction. I didn’t even know it was set in the future until I read it. The issue is that Infinite-Jest-as-science-fiction is not part of Little, Brown’s marketing strategy. Very often these days, booksellers and publishers decide what is and is not science fiction. There’s also a specious assumption that Serious Literature and science fiction are mutually exclusive. In Ursula Le Guin’s brilliant “On Serious Literature,”² she takes this type of thinking to task:

Had he not even understood the importance of the distinction between sci fi and counterfactual fiction? Could he not see that Cormac McCarthy — although everything in his book (except the wonderfully blatant use of an egregiously obscure vocabulary) was remarkably similar to a great many earlier works of science fiction about men crossing the country after a holocaust — could never under any circumstances be said to be a sci fi writer, because Cormac McCarthy was a serious writer and so by definition incapable of lowering himself to commit genre?

The Road is obviously science fiction.³ End of days, world of ash, single wanderer with companion trying to make his way? Except The Road was not billed or sold as science fiction, because Cormac McCarthy. Infinite Jest is the victim of the same type of thinking. This way of looking at things persists across literature. For example, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is not sold as science fiction even though an honest-to-god mad fucking scientist is a title character. Gravity’s Rainbow, almost the entire focus of which was the Nazi’s V2 missile program, the direct technological parent of the rockets that put men on the Moon, is rarely considered science fiction, although there’s a fairly strong argument there from the standpoint of #4.

Yep, looks pretty sciencey to me.

So, back to Infinite Jest. It’s science fiction, so I’m allowed to review it. The thing that surprised me most about it was how easy it was to read. It’s on the same cultural level as Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow – a Big Important Novel you want people to see you reading on the train. I’m not saying Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow aren’t worthwhile, but they are most definitely a fucking trek. Infinite Jest isn’t. There are some advanced bits, and yes there are footnotes,⁴ but for the most part it’s just long as hell. To prove my point, following are excerpts from each book, chosen by opening the book to a random page and typing what I found.

Infinite Jest:

Katherine, I am, in English, moribund. I have no legs, no Swiss honor, no leaders who will fight the truth. I am not alive, Katherine. I roll from skiing lodge to tavern, frequently drinking, alone, wishing for my death, locked inside my pain in the heart. I wish for my death but have not the courage to make actions to cause death. I twice try to roll over the side of a tall Swiss hill but cannot bring myself. I curse myself for cowardice and inutile.⁵

Ulysses:

Lynch! Hey? Sign on long o me. Denzille lane this way. Change here for Bawdyhouse. We two, she said, will seek the kips where shady Mary is. Righto, any old time. Laetabuntur in cubilibus suis. You coming long? Whisper, who the sooty hell’s the johnny in the black duds? Hush! Sinned against the light and even now that day is at hand when he shall come to judge the world by fire. Pflaap! Ut implerentur scripturae. Strike up a ballad.⁶

Gravity’s Rainbow:

He used to pick and shovel at the spring roads of Berkshire, April afternoons he’s lost, “Chapter 81 work,” they called it, following the scraper that clears the winter’s crystal attack-from-within, its white necropolizing…picking up rusted beer cans, rubbers yellow with preterite seed, Kleenex wadded to brain shapes hiding preterite snot, preterite tears, newspapers, broken glass, pieces of automobile, days when in superstition and fright he could make it all fit, seeing clearly in each an entry in a record, a history: his own, his winter’s, his country’s…instructing him, dunce and drifter, in ways deeper than he can explain…⁷

Above are excerpts from the trifecta of Modern Novels You Must Read. I hope they make it clear that Infinite Jest is comparatively accessible and smooth reading. It’s also one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Most “funny” books have me smiling a little as I consider how good that last joke was, but Infinite Jest had me in tears multiple times a day. So now we come to the main point of this article: read Infinite Jest. It is funny, compelling, and important. I spent most of my time discussing why certain features of this book put it within my science fiction purview, so Austin Duck⁸ will be along on Wednesday to talk about a massively more crucial subject: what makes Infinite Jest so damn important?

NOTES AND ERRATA

1. This is key, considering that outsized insects were almost as important to early pulp SF as words were.

2.  Read this. Following that link is undeniably a better use of your time than reading this article. It leads to a tongue-in-cheek piece of brilliant microfiction Le Guin wrote in response to a reviewer of Michael Chabon stating that he “has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.” This statement put Ursula Le Guin, goddess of fantasy and science fiction that she is, in high dudgeon. Her response is facetiousness perfected.

3. Or so obviously indebted to it that not acknowledging it is an act of ingratitude.

4. I recommend using an ereader to go through Infinite Jest. It’s gigantic and physically difficult to hold up. Also, clicking on a number to go directly to the footnote is a lot easier than flipping back and forth.

5. If given the context that a French Quebecois man in a wheelchair is speaking this in a second language, I can pretty easily figure out what’s going on here. No challenge at all.

6. What the fuck. What in the actual fuck. Is that Latin? Why? Why is that Latin?

7.  Okay, I know all the words here. All of them. Let’s just put them… together… hm. I can piece this together with some effort, but the fact remains that the author chose to write “rubbers yellow with preterite seed” instead of “used condoms,” so I don’t know.

8. Kind of a dick, but smart as hell and with a heart of gold. Read his article!

Image credits: Allmedia.com, Wiki, and Infinitesummer.org

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