Book review

'Tomorrow and Tomorrow' a near-future cyberpunk thriller

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My younger brother died in 2009, and until news of my first novel began to percolate up through the Internet a few years later, one of the first things you found when you Googled my name was his obituary.

By Thomas Sweterlitsch
Putnam Adult ($26.95)

Ironically, I’d written that, too. A lot of anguished cultural commentary about the Internet and online culture these days calls narcissism the primary mode of online life, but I believe that if you pay attention, you will find that it is often grief.

Thomas Sweterlitsch has been paying attention. His debut novel, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” which is in stores on Thursday, is many things: a near-future cyberpunk thriller in the tradition of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling; a funny, gloomy meditation on technology and mental illness in the tradition of Phillip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard; a cynically outrageous mystery less in the tradition of Chandler than that of James Ellroy.

“Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is a bleak, gorgeous romp through a pornographic and political American id. If good science fiction is true to the dictum that the future is just like now only more so, then “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is great science fiction.

But at its heart, and like a lot of its precursors and influences, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is also a book about the different varieties of addiction, the human sickness that prevents us from letting go.

The novel is set toward the far end of our century. There’s been a fad for full-on apocalypse in fiction in recent years, but Mr. Sweterlitsch’s is more local and idiosyncratic. Ten years before the book’s fictional future, Pittsburgh is destroyed by an atomic bomb in a vague act of terrorism.

John Dominic Blaxton, the narrator and protagonist, survives by being out of town at the time. His wife does not. The rest of the country has largely moved on, albeit (in an echo of our own decade or so since 9/11) by becoming ever more draconian and militarized. The 22nd amendment has been repealed, and the U.S. is in the fourth term of President Meecham, a former beauty queen and semi-dictator somewhere between Sarah Palin and Margaret Thatcher. Surveillance is omnipresent. The TSA, I regret to inform you, is just like now, only more so.

For the survivors of the Pittsburgh catastrophe, there is an online archive, Google street view on steroids, in which it is possible to revisit the lost city and its inhabitants in immersive virtual reality.

For some, this is a casually cherished memorial. For Blaxton, it is as addictive as the “brown sugar” and other drugs he desperately imbibes. And Blaxton is not only a survivor of Pittsburgh. He also makes his living in this same re-creation. In one of the book’s best bits of bleak humor, he works for an insurance company that requires all of the tens of thousands of Pittsburgh deaths be investigated, lest it accidentally pay out survivor benefits to someone who was merely murdered before the bomb went off.

Blaxton’s investigation of just such a murder sets off the mechanics of the novel’s mystery plot. If there is a criticism of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” it is that the noir detective story can feel overstuffed, and you can sometimes hear the gears turning.

The book is more interesting when nothing much is happening, and we are just wandering with the narrator in a frightfully recognizable future full of lurid “fashionporn,” advertisements beamed directly into our heads and the virtual-reality equivalents of lost loved ones’ undeleted Facebook pages.

There is also an occasional overreliance on expository dialogue. In particular, a retelling of the moment of Pittsburgh’s destruction, although vivid, seems misplaced in the mouth of a critical but secondary character. These are very minor complaints. “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is deeply felt and very sad, but it is buoyed by a sharply satirical eye for the absurdities of our era and its likely future.

For those of us who know Pittsburgh, it’s full of buried treasure — a thousand and one local restaurants, a lot of familiar last names, an infamous local graffitist, and plenty more. Mr. Sweterlitsch gives us many reasons to be nervous about the future of America, but if books like this are the future of fiction, I’m not afraid for books at all.

Jacob Bacharach is a novelist and the author of “The Bend of the World.”

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