[Shadow Clarke] REVIEW — M. Suddain’s Hunters & Collectors (2016)
Another week, another lengthy piece about a relatively obscure science-fiction novel taken from my list of potential Clarke Award nominees.
This time, I have written about M. Suddain’s second novel Hunters & Collectors, a book that I initially loved, then got annoyed with, and finally came to appreciate not only for the sheer quality of its sentence-by-sentence writing but also for the myriad clever ways in which it uses structure, pagination, and the trappings of literary sophistication to produce very specific effects and explore some interesting themes:
Hunters & Collectors is a book about celebrity and the way that online celebrity interacts with social class. Tomahawk presents himself as this hedonistic and transgressive figure but as his destruction suggests, his ability to transgress the rules of polite society is constrained by a particular social contract: As a critic, he can express himself as honestly as he wants as long as that self-expression does not extend beyond the realms of consumer advice to a critique of existing power structures and social systems. Be as rude as you like about restaurant owners, but don’t you dare talk about the government. The social contract also has an – unwritten but understood – rule that your celebrity and popularity are entirely dependent upon your ability to face the right direction at all times. Be as rude as you like about the out-group, but don’t you dare talk about people we aspire to be lest we turn against you. There is also an understanding that making any statement in public (even anonymously) positions you in a world where everyone spends their time tearing each other to pieces. Face the wrong direction and your support will evaporate and once your support evaporates, you can be utterly destroyed even if you have not done or said anything wrong. This is a dog-eat-dog world but only for those without any real power.
The recent US elections have done quite a bit to focus our attentions on the way that a culture’s Overton window can be influenced not only by the material conditions affecting the lives of political commentators but also by the social dynamics that govern the social circles in which those political commentators move. Any number of excellent pieces have and will continue to be written about this but I found this older piece by Henry Farrell to be a really good starting point.
This being said, I think that the focus on well-connected voices who had been hoping to benefit from varying degrees of presidential ‘access’ has served to obscure the realities of life on the lowest levels of content provision. Hunters & Collectors presents the online world as a place that can make you rich and famous or poor and hated almost at the flick of a switch and I think the rise and fall of figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Devin Faraci show quite how cut-throat and precarious this cultural sphere has become. The (thoroughly excellent) podcast Chapo Trap House has tens of thousands of subscribers and moves almost seamlessly between the celebration and evisceration of different political commentators. Chapo may have turned these cultural reactions into a cultural phenomenon but my experience of social media is that everyone spends their days spreading the pieces they like and tearing apart the pieces they hate. If you don’t believe me, ask Owen Jones a man perpetually misunderstood, regardless of the interpretation one happens to place upon his writings…