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The Tomorrow File, 1975
Just as 1984 passed without Orwell's dire 1949 speculations coming true, 1999 went safely by without the U.S. transmuting into Lawrence Sanders' savagely imagined "brave new world" -- at least in most respects. It's interesting to pick this diabolical novel up again after a quarter of a century and review its cautionary vision of the future, now the present. Aside from a failure to foresee rapid advances in computer technology (Sanders' computers of 1999 are woefully primitive) and a communications system like the Internet, many of the author's predictions hit the target dead-center: casually tolerated sexual promiscuity and pornography, test-tube procreation, genetic typing, proliferation of drugs, political terrorism, violent entertainment, spin-control manipulation of public opinion, and globalization of a consumer economy under the aegis of rampant capitalism.
Sanders is not primarily a writer of social fiction and is keeping heady company if set on the same shelf as Orwell, Huxley, and Burgess; perhaps The Tomorrow File ought more modestly to be bracketed with a minor Orwell-clone like Ira Levin's This Perfect Day. Still, this title is decidedly atypical amidst Sander's steady output of spicy murder mysteries and suspense novels; its intelligent, minutely detailed portrayal of a society in thrall to scientific progress and its explicit study of the individual's relation to the State raise it to a loftier plane than effimeral best-sellerdom. Devised as background to a gritty tale of intrigue, ambition, and revenge, Sander's semi-fictitious society persists in elbowing its way to the fore with hallucinatory Orwellian newspeak and off-hand endorsements of addictive soft-drinks, televized sex and executions, prenatal conditioning, human cloning, tawdry fashions, and gulag-style medical experimentation on dissidents. In a fast-paced world where the vocabularies for love and finance have been interchanged, those who can't or won't keep up are scorned as "obso"--obsolete--and trashed accordingly.
Progress means everything to Nicholas Flair, the unscrupulous protagonist and narrator, and to the brilliant young technocrats he supervises as chief of Research and Development for the Satisfaction Section at the Department of Bliss (formerly Health, Education, and Welfare). In their full-speed-ahead sprint to implement tomorrow's possibilities today, Nicholas and his quick-study deputy, the devious Paul Bumford, keep running up against society's lag in catching up with them. Not all of their brain-storming is politically expedient; they are forced to park ideas temporarily in a "tomorrow file" until times mature--such measures as government-assisted euthanasia for retired non-consumers or status based strictly on genetic rating. As the file begins to bulge with controversial projects put on hold, their attention turns to the means of coercing society into conforming to their vision of policy dictated by a scientific elite. It gradually becomes evident to Paul, less so to Nicholas, that citizens must be viewed as the physical property of the State and their lives ruthlessly adjusted to fulfill the State's requirements.
Nicholas, for all his brazen cynicism, is a closet romantic who harbours a yearning for the unquantifiables: charm and genuinity. Surrounded by tasteless synthetics, he appreciates real wine and coffee, hoards catalogues of the work of an obscure artist (studying them alone in a locked room), and nourishes a tender regard for his "obso" mother, so out of touch with the flamboyant times that she has retreated into a gentle alcoholic haze. Unobserved by his peers, he can be kind and attentive to the least of his lovers, a girl far beneath him in position, intellect, and genetic classification. Ceaselessly ricocheting between his callous public and guarded private lives, Nicholas is riding for a fall. The fatal tumble occurs when he attempts to experience old-fashioned sentiments--the mystery and spiritual dimension of love--with an enigmatic woman married to a superior official, and is perhaps passionately requited, perhaps indifferently betrayed.
But Nicholas' first foray into emotional sensation is a cold-blooded scheme of vengeance. His former boss, the ruthless Angela Berri, has deftly manipulated him in a complicated plot to cover up her own malfeasance. Angela's ploy is brutal and successful; she, Nicholas, and Paul all move one step up in the departmental hierarchy and Angela becomes the lover of Director Wingate, whose beautiful wife Grace excites Nicholas' yearning devotion. When Nicholas unravels Angela's subterfuges, he resents having been set up as a potential fall-guy and decides to bring Angela down. With Paul's support, he embarks on a circuitous plan of entrapment, spurred on by Grace's distaste for Angela's intrusion into her husband's life. Angela's downfall enables him to take over her position, while the apparently loyal Paul steps into Nicholas' old shoes. But Nicholas is accustomed to viewing Paul as a biddable subordinate and is reluctant to relinquish control of his pet projects when Paul reaches for legitimate authority. Blinded by his love for Grace and his hubristic concentration on a radical and spectacular medical intervention to preserve the life of the regime's guru, a social and political theorist slowly dying of leukemia, Nicholas unwisely overlooks the many toes he has stomped upon and omits precautions for guarding his back, where the poisoned knife will duly be planted.
The malicious involutions of the plot alone make The Tomorrow File a memorable experience, but readers will especially relish being titillated and appalled by the dizzying excesses of the society Sanders so lucidly envisages.
© Wordreign, November 2000
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