December 08, 2005


Venusia. By Mark von Schlegell.  Semiotext(e) Native Agents/MIT Press. $14.95.

Flush. By Carl Hiaasen. Knopf. $16.95.

     Neither of the worlds in these books exists.  Or both do.  It’s a matter of interpretation, and of how you see where we are today.  Mark von Schlegell’s Venusia is a traditionally dystopic view of a future society, except that that doesn’t quite capture it.  It’s set on the colony of the title, an off-world place that has survived the destruction of Earth and is getting on quite well, thank you, at the end of the 23rd century.  But all is of course not well.  It is the way it is not well that makes von Schlegell’s book – his first novel – fascinating.  Venusia is historically inert, its people captured by industrialized narcotics, holographic entertainment and memory control imposed for their own benefit by a totalitarian but enlightened government.  Does this sound vaguely familiar?  It should.  Familiarity peeks through the strangeness everywhere here.  Consider von Schlegell’s description of the setup of an interview: “Sylvia was surprised to see that the journalist had unpacked a flying Iye and set it hovering above her head.  The little silver ball was turning, tracing the entire office in 3-D. …’Excuse me, Citizen Dobbs,’ Sylvia interrupted.  She took off her helmet and looked into the Iye, shaking her luxurious hair.  ‘Shhh.’  The machine whispered.  ‘Go on as if Iye wasn’t here.’”  Now, how is this different from today’s “just ignore the camera” or “talk into the tape recorder” interviews?  It isn’t, in any meaningful way.  And this familiarity within difference gives von Schlegell’s method of upsetting the stasis of Venusia a pointed quality: what happens is that a junk dealer finds a book about early Venusian history that upsets the apple cart.  It’s actually a sentient-plant cart – the plant is a significant character – but the parallels between Venusia’s history (or non-history) and our own remain clear and pertinent no matter how outrageous the narrative becomes.  And it becomes pretty outrageous – Venusia is a roller-coaster of a read.

     Carl Hiaasen’s works are usually roller-coasters, but their setting is some variation of modern-day Florida rather than a space settlement.  Hiaasen’s adventures have an out-of-this-world quality to them, though.  Flush is his second book for young readers, after Hoot, and it too puts his off-kilter characters and highly unusual plotting at the service of an ecological message.  Flush is all about the raw sewage being, shall we say, flushed into previously pristine waters and polluting previously beautiful beaches, all at the behest of a crooked casino-boat operator named Dusty Muleman (Hiaasen’s characters’ names are always redolent of their personalities).  Young Noah Underwood finds himself on a quest to stop Dusty after Noah’s father tries to sink the dastardly Muleman’s casino boat, the Coral Queen, and is arrested.  Joined by his sister, Abbey, Noah embarks on “Operation Flush” to prove that Muleman and his boat are responsible for all the recent pollution of the bay and the beaches.  The good guys eventually win, of course, but not before the reader encounters such typically Hiaasenian characters as a deadbeat former Coral Queen crew member named Lice Peking and a mysterious pirate with an M-shaped scar.  Flush is a romp, but a romp with a purpose, and if the message is a touch heavy-handed at times, the writing style and fast pacing never are.  And there is no question that Hiaasen’s world, no matter how done-up and twisted, is very much our own.

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