« Stearns Quarry | Main | Quote »

Ben Tanzer, Orphans

As always, I'm never objective about any of my great friend Ben Tanzer's books, so please take this review with as many grains of salt as you wish.

What struck me most about Orphans is that while so much here is familar - the narrative voice that is totally Ben's, along with most of his usual preoccuptions, including marriage, fatherhood, belonging, loss, work, love, sex, rock and roll, physical release and, yes, chemical stimulants - he has translated that voice and those preoccupations into a futuristic dystopia. That familiar voice is somehow comforting even as it describes a dying world of societal and economic collapse, environmental degradation and brutal class divisions. In this dystopia, Ben's usual preoccupations are dramatically amped up, transformed from a state of simple existential angst to the very survival of his protagonist. The stakes here are so much higher than his realist fiction, and the outcome much more emphatic.

The Orphans dystopia is vivid and menacing. Society is run by a single omnipotent Corporation, which exploits workers until they are no longer useful, after which they are cast aside. An elite social class lives in luxury while the vast multitudes hustle and scrape to survive. Black helicopters patrol the skies, dispersing and even killing anyone who dares to congregate on the streets. Hordes of the unemployed, still wearing their business suits, wander about, desperately imploring the fortunate employed for work. The inner city, while still maintaining a veneer of normalcy, is increasingly threatened by an ever-encroaching wilderness. And the dwindling middle class, represented by the protagonist Norrin Radd, is tolerated by the Corporation while their skills are still needed; in Norrin's case, his powers of persuasion are vital in selling real estate on the rapidly colonizing Mars to the elites who are increasingly desperate to escape Earth before society completely collapses.

As fascinating as the setting is, though, all of it is backdrop to the story of Norrin, his relationship with his wife and young son, and especially the quandry he faces in balancing his family life with his career. Does he do whatever the Corporation demands of him, including months-long business trips to Mars, to provide for his family, or does he try to somehow make a living at home and spend as much time with his family as he can? While he thinks (or merely hopes) that he has that choice, over time he comes to realize that yielding to the Corporation is all he can do in order to survive.

An important aspect of this career-versus-family struggle is the Terrax, one of most interesting elements of the narrative. In his past books, Ben's male protagonists often compare themselves to an impossible ideal of what they believe a man, husband or father should be, inevitably falling far short of their expectations. When this ideal is just imagined and intangible, falling short of it is something these men can live with; they may not be satisfied with themselves, but they can still get by. But in Orphans, falling short of this masculine ideal results in something much more tangible and dramatic, because of the Terrax.

The Terrax is an essential cog in the book's society, a jack-of-all-trades robot that does most of the dirty work, with the Corporation finding them to be more reliable than human employees for mundane tasks. Some Terraxes are even programmed to be substitutes for interplanetary workers like Norrin, whose bodies and personalities are replicated in a Terrax, which serves as a surrogate husband and father in the worker's family while he's away. The Corporation has found that this makes the family happier during the worker's absence, which in turn creates a more focused and productive worker. But while this may be good for Norrin's family, it's not good for him personally, as he's already full of insecurities and doubts about how good a family man he is, again measuring himself against an impossible ideal. Norrin grimly sees his Terrax as the perfect version of himself, one he can never measure up to. In the Terrax he has a very real rival, though a rival more in his own mind than to his family, who clearly recognize the differences between Norrin and his Terrax, and prefer the real thing. The presence of his Terrax, along with his insecurities and the Corporation's increasingly unreasonable demands, ultimately drives Norrin to make a critical, fateful decision. Which, in retrospect, is probably the only choice he could have made.

Orphans is both familiar and yet unprecedented in the context of Ben's earlier work, a thought-provoking meditation on the struggle between family and career, all of it told through a brisk, often thrilling story. Very well done.

October 25, 2013 in Books | Permalink


Excellent and accurate article on Orphans. Nice job!

Posted by: Joseph G. Peterson at Oct 26, 2013 2:32:41 PM