Paul Di Filippo Reviews Glitterati by Oliver K. Langmead

Glitterati, Oliver K. Langmead (Titan 978-1789097962, trade paperback, 288pp, $15.95) May 2022.

If Jack Vance had scripted the Zoolander movies, the result might look very much like Oliver Langmead’s sophomore novel, Glitterati. It’s an SF version of one of those frothy comedies perfected by Wodehouse and Firbank, Benson and Thirkell, which nonetheless conceals sharp social commentary and a steely lesson in how to learn to live in the only way that really matters. Neither entirely cynical nor culminatively sentimental, the tale presents its events with a sharp dispassionate camera’s eye. The novel exhibits a surface sleekness and polish which looks deceptively easy to produce. But its artifice is deep and demands much skill in the composition. Equating “dying” with “writing a sober-sided tragic novel,” then the famous maxim “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” surely applies.

I have not read his first book, Birds of Paradise, but immediately purchased a copy when I finished this one, anticipating equal pleasures.

The subject matter of Glitterati is fashion, an important and vital aspect of human culture, preoccupation for millions of people, which is generally slighted or ignored by SF. Aside from Jack Vance’s oeuvre, in which clothing was often spotlighted (with “The Moon Moth” being the supreme instance), I can recall very little SF or fantasy with fashion as its focus. Perhaps the supreme prior instance was Jon Armstrong’s excellent Yarn. (And sadly, Armstrong has fallen silent for over a decade now.)

Our future high-tech world (or a universe very similar) has stratified along traditional economic lines: proles in poverty, a struggling middle-class, and the ultra-rich. So far, so familiar. But here’s the new hook. Every member of this world’s one percent has become a “fashionite” or “fashionista,” dedicated to nothing more than public preening, one-upmanship, status games, voguing, celebrity-spotting, influencer trend-setting, etc. There are no Elon Musk billionaires doing heroic stuff like going to Mars. The upper class is all drones, one-hundred percent nitwit narcissists as far down as you can go. And it’s so hermetic that these people are not garnering egoboo from being worshipped by the underclasses, but only by themselves. It’s as if the Kardashians had written this nation’s Constitution—a thought experiment that I am sure Langmead had in mind.

Our hero in all this is Simone, husband to Georgie. Now, despite those misleading names, Simone is male and heterosexual, just as Georgie is female and hetero. They have merely adopted names that seem “fabulous,” the all-purpose encomium. But even this description does not do justice to the nature of these “fabulous” creatures. They are what in older days would have been called “polymorphously perverse.” Their egomaniacal self-regard incorporates any behavior or look that will garner attention. Simone is as fond of a nice gown as Georgie is of a tuxedo.

Now, this scenario is as unlikely in its way as The Space Merchants and other 1950s dystopias that had one fraction of society magnified and ruling the others. But Langmead really sells it, sucking the reader in past all incredulity.

We start out with a typical day for Simone. After the elaborate rituals of getting his look ready, he goes to “work,” a pointless showplace for strutting one’s stuff. But amazingly, Simone has committed a fashion faux pas, and is now primed for ridicule. But then his mistake is taken up by someone of higher status and deemed a daring revolution in style! Success! But this triumph will earn Simone an implacable enemy, Justine.

“You must be Simone,” she said, running her purple talons across the collar of her dress. The dress shimmered with the movement, the sequins acting like the scales of a fish, and Simone found himself staring at the colours, absorbed in their aesthetic finery. “The office is simply abuzz about you. I,” she said, gently running those same talons across the back of Simone’s hand, “am Justine.”

The subsequent running battle between the two living mannequins provides the main plot engine of the novel, and it is hilarious, supremely ridiculous in its triviality, like the Iliad fought over, say, a stolen purse. Can Justine’s theft of Simone’s perfect accessory (a juicy organic lemon) be thwarted by Simone’s rummaging through his dead father’s closet for a vintage spidersilk dress? Stay tuned! You will not want to miss one second of these absurd battles.

But parallel with this is another line of action that ultimately upends the lives of Simone and Georgie. A prole child, a toddler, somehow finds its way into their estate. At first, the two are horrified at the appearance of the grubby urchin. But soon the child’s presence comes to reveal the shallowness of the fashionista lifestyle, and puts Simone in danger of losing what he has come to unexpectedly cherish.

Mr Vivian nodded. “Unfortunately, this cannot be allowed to continue. Thus, we are going to hospital, where your memories of the past three months will be erased.”

Simone blinked. “Pardon?”

“Please understand, Simone. You are part of a delicate system. Hundreds of people rely on your continued placidity. The contract is thus: you get to live a life of absolute luxury, your every whim catered to, and in return you remain ignorant of your overwhelming financial power.”

This portrait of the one-percenters being effectively and unwittingly castrated, turned out to field, as a measure of protection for the rest of the world is just one of Langmead’s stiletto-sharp jabs.

In the end, the book assumes the shape of The Pickwick Papers: a coterie of silly drones mesmerized by trivialities, suddenly brought up short by the sufferings of the world. But as I said earlier, Langmead does not dully hammer home any stodgy preachy message. Simone’s pre-enlightened life gets as much artistic reverence as his conversion.

One final touchstone for this book is Michael Moorcock’s The Dancers at the End of Time series. Like those far-future posthumans, Simone and his coterie have everything and nothing, until a shift of vision reveals that skeletons walk the runway.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 30 years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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