A while ago, Adam Shaftoe reviewed iD over at his site, and one thing (among the many lovely things) he had to say has stuck with me since.
At the same time, it’s not all nods and prods at the dystopian/technocratic worlds of Akira, Brazil, Portal, and Blade Runner. About half way through the novel I came across a chapter called, “The Man of Constant Sorrow.” For those who don’t know, this is the song George Clooney et al sang in Oh Brother Where Art Thou, a Coen Brothers adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. With one single chapter title it seemed like Ashby was daring me to re-read the novel through the lens of Javier as South American android Odysseus. Is the vN populated city of Mecha his Ithaca? Is Amy the story’s Penelope? I got about as far as framing the Baccarat hustler Javier meets as Cerce before I realized I was pushing even my own broad tolerance for tangents within a review. Meta as hell, indeed…
Though the structure of the story could be viewed through a classical lens, Javier is so far from the tropes of a Greek hero (or modern hero since they’re basically the same thing now) that he emerges as a commentary on conservative character writing. Meanwhile, the novel offers more layers than the offspring of Community and Inception, each of which says something different about design, surveillance, genetics, parenting, and other topics that I probably missed along the way. With these themes bound up in an ongoing discussion on human-machine relationships, iD proves approachable to all, but quick to reward the intelligent reader well versed in genre storytelling.
Yes, Adam, that was an Odyssey reference. (Which is why the ship Javier boards later is called The Caribbean Odyssey. And actually, there was an Odyssey reference in one of the many drafts of “The Education of Junior Number 12”, but nobody would know that but me and the editors who rejected it. So, what other references are there?
- The Odyssey: Adam figured that one out pretty tidily.
- Candide: When Javier wakes up from his trip in the belly of the whale, he is on a room with the words “We must cultivate our garden,” stencilled across one wall. This is the sentiment the title character expresses at the end of Voltaire’s novel, and it’s foreshadowing the end of iD.
- Frankenstein: When Portia speaks in the novel, she is usually speaking in quotations from Mary Wollstonecraft’s novel. Specifically, she’s speaking as The Creature.
- The Wasteland: There are so many references to T.S. Eliot’s poem that I’m not sure where to begin. “We hear the key turn,” is a reference itself to The Inferno (another story about a man walking through fire for the woman he loves), but also to the theme of appearance vs. reality (which I found entirely appropriate). But I was drawn not only to the imagery of prisons and breaking free of prisons as a metaphor for the failsafe, but also to the concept of “unreal cities” that Eliot alludes to frequently. The whole novel takes place in a series of unreal cities, so it seemed appropriate.
- One Hundred Years of Solitude: Speaking of which, this is why the community Javier infiltrates is called Macondo. That’s the name of the town in Marquez’ novel. It is referred to as the “city of mirrors,” and it’s a place where the dead can rise and where magic can happen. Javier and his sons are inspired by the seventeen sons of Colonel Aureliano Buendía in that novel, all of whom have the same dark eyes and the same terrible fate. Aureliano is the illegitimate son of José Arcadio’s, which is why Javier’s father is named Arcadio. (The name itself recalls Arcadia, the Greek utopian vision of harmony with nature (and my favourite Tom Stoppard play). I thought it appropriate for an eco model.
- The Velveteen Rabbit: In the prologue, Derek refers to Susie as “the Velveteen fucking Rabbit,” because in that story, toys become “Real” only after they’ve been loved for long enough. That idea had always inspired me, so I included it here. It’s also why Javier’s nickname in prison was “Conejito,” or “little rabbit.” (That, and he’s an excellent jumper.)
- Pinnochio: There are a lot of references to “real live boys,” in the story, which is a direct reference to Disney’s telling of the Pinnochio story. Also Javier enters the belly of a whale.
- Night of the Hunter: Mitch Powell is named after Robert Mitchum’s character in the film, Reverend Harry Powell. In it, Powell chases two children in hopes of obtaining their father’s fortune, after murdering their mother. Everybody should see this movie at least once, if only because it’s one of the few examples of Hollywood Impressionism. It goes off the rails in the denouement, but it’s full of really iconic images that’ll stick with you for a long time.
- Fantasía para un gentilhombre: this concerto was written for Segovia in 1954, but it’s based on the work of seventeent-century composer Gaspar Sanz.
- Isaac Asimov: In both vN and iD, the trucks that take robots away are labelled “Isaac’s Electronics.” Derek also names his companion Susie, after Susan Calvin. In his job interview, he’s asked if he’s a Christian and replies “I’m a Calvinist.” Also, Dr. Sarton is named after Roj Nemmunuh Sarton, who builds R. Daneel Olivaw.
- Ray Bradbury: “The Veldt” gets a pretty big reference; it’s the name of the children’s-only section of the island. Here, the lions are a crucial part of the island’s self-defence mechanism.
- Holberton: Chris Holberton is named after Betty Holberton, one of the original programmers of the ENIAC computer. (And he looks just like John Slattery, in case you wondered.)
- Taft: The gambler Javier meets is about to go up against a vN gambler named Taft, who is named after Keith Taft, a professional gambler who built one of the first blackjack computers in the 1970’s while working at Raytheon and Fairchild.
- Hammer films: This was another way to bring Frankenstein in. It’s why Holberton has a Curse of Frankenstein poster in his home office. Also I really enjoy Hammer horror films, especially when I’m sick or it’s October.
- The Prisoner: You can’t do a story about themed communities or housing developments without making reference to The Prisoner. Period.
- 2001: A Spacy Odyssey. Amy references it at one point, along with Star Trek and Alien. One of the puppet vN also makes reference to it, by singing “A Bicycle Built for Two.” (But really, that whole puppet vN sequence is inspired by Ash’s final speech in Alien.)
- The Stepford Wives: For a long time, I referred to vN as The von Neumann Wives. But that reflected a different goal for the story, and different content. Still, it’s why the Macondo project’s codename is “Stepford.”
- Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: The Electric Sheep food chain still stands, and Portia makes reference to Blade Runner, specifically the Voight-Kampff test question about the tortoise. Javier also references the VK test several times, specifically as part of his sex life.
- Brazil: Originally, I wrote a whole scene at Sam Lowry’s Brazilian BBQ, but the scene was going nowhere and I cut it. The name stuck, though.
- William Gibson: a facsimile of Molly Millions (and her alter ego, Sally) make an appearance as volumetric projections atop a building in Mecha. They are advertising monofilament. The Gibson estate is likely suing the makers of said monofilament.
- Tom Waits: The chapter “You Can’t Unring A Bell” is named after this song, which I had always thought of as the novel’s theme song. Mostly because the opening stanza goes like this: You can’t unring a bell, Junior / It’ll cost you to get out of this one, Junior / She’s got big plans that don’t include you / Take it like a man
- Ricardo Montalban: Come on, now. A sequel? About a guy hell-bent on revenge?
- Akira: Javier rides Kaneda’s bike from Las Vegas to Walla Walla.
- Nine Inch Nails: One chapter is named after this song. I speak religion’s message clear. (And I control you.)
- Neon Genesis Evangelion: The name of the human being in the Mechanese citizenship exam is Shinji, after Ikari Shinji (who is always getting the shit kicked out of him in that series, too).
- Ghost in the Shell: One chapter is titled in Japanese, and is a reference to this song from the 1995 film, specifically the verse that goes “Yobai ni kami amakudarite,” or “A god descends for a wedding.” Given the chapter’s content, it’s fairly relevant.
- Cowboy Bebop: The gambler Javier meets aboard the cruise ship calls herself “Poker Alice,” after Faye Valentine’s alter ego in Cowboy Bebop. (They also have the same haircut.) Later, Javier fights with someone in a replica of the Tokyo Tower, much like the climactic battle in Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.
- Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: The Tachikomas make an appearance in Mecha, as proctors for the citizenship exam.
- Supernatural: Chris Holberton owns a replica of the Metallicar, the 1967 Chevy Impala that is “the most important object in the universe.” Supernatural actually had more influence on the first novel, which is essentially about two people stuck in a series of cars processing their feelings about demonic possession and each other.
- The Suburbs: I was listening to this record a lot while I wrote the book, because I wanted something that would make me think about Macondo/Stepford in another way. I’m not sure it worked, but I do like some of the songs on it. It grew on me; my first listen through I found it a bit bland. But after a while, the textures started revealing themselves and I enjoyed it more. (I also spent time listening to Exitmusic’s The Passage, and the soundtrack to Drive, and a few others, but that’s for another post.)
I never really expected anybody to pick up on all of these. But given that people have asked me about a few of these, I thought I should try to compile that list.vN had references to Silent Hill, Foucault’s Pendulum, Madoka Magica, and a whole bunch of other things. Sometimes people ask me about them, and it always tickles me. If you think it’s intentional, it probably is.