Maya C. James Reviews Invisible Things by Mat Johnson

Invisible Things, Mat Johnson (One World 978-0-59322-925-5, $27.00, 272pp, hc) July 2022.

Nalini Jackson is a sociologist looking to boost her academic career, and after being selected to join cryoship SS Del­aney for the first manned mission to Jupiter, her research aims to answer the following: can society’s most intelligent individuals overcome humankind’s social downfalls? The crew she travels with has a much different task: find a hos­pitable plant for humankind to migrate to. What they find instead is a domed city on Jupiter’s moon Europa: New Roanoke. Strangely enough, it resembles an American city. Complete with suburbs, fast food, and corrupt oligarchs, New Roanoke is a mirror for the worst that American politics has to offer. Only, there’s also an invis­ible entity terrorizing its hostage citizens, and no one is willing to talk about it.

The mysterious domed city has been populated through kidnappings and abductions since 1623. Much like America’s history, New Roanoke has experienced its own genocides, slavery, civil rights movement, and other major events. Shortly upon discovering the city, members of the SS Delaney are forcibly declared citizens and assimilated into New Roanoke.

Invisible Things is a satirical science fic­tion mash-up of mirrored realities and parallel worlds, first contact missions gone wrong, domed cities, and, as author Mat Johnson described in a 2022 NPR interview ‘‘a parable about parti­sanship.’’ Satirical in nature, there’s plenty of dry humor and wry observations about human life without teetering too close to arrogant as­suredness.

For those looking for absolute escapism in their science fiction, Invisible Things is cer­tainly not that – all the issues that plague Earth, except climate change, exist in New Roanoke and are exacerbated by the collective trauma its citizens are either indifferent to or in denial about. A ruling elite dominates life, and all poli­tics are oriented towards their benefit. Complete with religious, Manifest Destiny-esque kind of rhetoric, people must either buy into the New Roanoke Dream or find themselves as part of an undesirable, marginalized population that reaps none of the city’s benefits.

From the start, Nalini is an outsider in many ways. As the only humanities-based expert on the flight crew, the stakes feel much higher for her – she must rely on the talents of her engineer and astronaut copilots, and learn to be useful around the ship, in addition to navigating some of the more domineering personalities within the crew. Her humorous accounts of her strong-willed crew members are quite amusing and entertaining to read. All the characters, espe­cially those from the SS Delaney, are sharp and good at what they do. Bob, one of the original crew members and an unimaginably charismatic asshole, has a particularly dramatic arc as both a victim of the kidnapping and an obstacle to Nalini’s attempts to return home. While written in third-person, I found the relationships between characters to be detailed and well-explored through Nalini’s expertise as a sociologist, but also her lived experience understanding how hu­mans work with each other and hurt one another.

Invisible Things is highly political. It’s cer­tainly not subtle, but I found that to fit the pacing and purpose of the book – it’s a biting indictment of the recent American political climate.

Although Nalini Jackson is the sociologist, author Mat Johnson has a clear understanding of social relationships himself. His concise and realist observations of human behavior and fallacies in a time of American absurdity are well-delivered. Considering his African and Irish ancestry, the book has a genuine nuance to it about immigration and forced immigration that is emotionally vulnerable yet consistent with the tone of the novel.

As the threat of the invisible things looms larger with each passing page, another threat emerges from the de facto ruling party, which uses their monopolies to squash political dis­sent. It was fascinating seeing characters join different groups to make sense of the enormity of their situation, while also seeing how easily some truths can unravel a society.

Very decisive in its purpose, Invisible Things is a timely and accurate allegory for current state of affairs in the U.S. that manages to stand out in an overly saturated market. It is my expectation that this novel will be a timeless read for under­standing the extreme polarization and economic inequalities of this current era.

Maya C. James is a graduate of the Lannan Fellows Program at Georgetown University, and full-time student at Harvard Divinity School. Her work has appeared in Star*Line, Strange Horizons, FIYAH, Soar: For Harriet, and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center Blog, among others. She was recently long listed for the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize (2019), and featured on a feminist speculative poetry panel at the 2019 CD Wright Women Writer’s Conference. Her work focuses primarily on Afrofuturism, and imagining sustainable futures for at-risk communities. You can find more of her work here, and follow her on Twitter: @mayawritesgood.

This review and more like it in the January 2023 issue of Locus.

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