MARCH 7, 2019
AT FIRST GLANCE, Ben H. Winters’s new novel, Golden State, seems to be a Swiftian, post-Trumpian satire, a portrait of a culture based on a total ban on untruth, suggesting that the novel is a response to the lies that have dominated American politics in the current administration. In Winters’s alternative California (which seems to be limited to suburban Los Angeles) in Golden State, truth is valued above all, which would seem to be a “golden state” indeed, in contrast to our current muddle. But this Golden State is no paradise of transparent communication and human connection; it is a total surveillance state, a dystopia that relies on capturing each tiny truth of every minute of each day of its citizens’ lives, in order to archive and, if necessary, verify the “Objectively So.” The bulk of the story is an intense exploration of the consequences of this social contract based on the total dependence on truth and the categorical rejection of lies. Winters is the author of the “pre-apocalyptic” Last Policeman series as well as an alternate-reality vision of an America in which the Civil War never happened (Underground Airlines). Golden State combines both the notion of an apocalypse and that of an alternate reality to investigate reality, fiction, and the social consequences and epistemological status of truth.
Talking about the novel in those terms risks making it seem like a dry tract, when in fact it is an entertaining new take on the venerable genre-blending of noir and science fiction. There are overtones of George Orwell, Alfred Bester, and Philip José Farmer, along with a bit of Fahrenheit 451 and The Handmaid’s Tale and even a hint of The Truman Show, as well as some post-apocalyptic steampunk and some postmodernist metafiction. The story follows a law enforcement officer’s brisk, three-day spiral into the anomalies and uncertainties that are precisely the crimes that are his job to control. Laszlo “Laz” Ratesic is not a normal police officer, though; he is a member of the Speculative Service (perhaps a tongue-in-cheek nod to Winters’s chosen genre). The Speculators, as the agents are known, have telepathic or clairvoyant powers: they can see or feel lies in the space surrounding them. Their job title comes from the speculations that only they, in their investigations, are entitled to pursue: speculation being a mental action that risks untruth, otherwise forbidden in the Golden State.
The world of Golden State is a mixture of advanced surveillance technology and low-tech archiving. The Day Book everyone carries uses carbon paper, so that copies can be placed in the paper archives everyone is required to maintain; there is no internet, but there is a sophisticated retrieval and reassembly system for the vast amount of public and personal data accumulated electronically; interspersed throughout the city are both farms and solar panels. The mixing of diverse levels of technology along with the redefinition of common words in the Golden State’s dialect frequently produces comic effects, such as when Laz must enter the Permanent Record (the final archive for all the surveillance information that the state has gathered on the public and private lives of its citizens) through a Great Hall; passage through this entry is protected by the building’s severe security protocol: the protectors of the archive are “librarians,” who inspect the visitor’s documents, take his fingerprints, look into his mouth, even assess his mental state with a wand that seems more like a dowsing rod than a piece of technology. As Laz says, “These are the custodians of the Record. They are Librarians, and they do not fuck around.”
The book opens with a prologue explaining the origin of the text, but reader beware, there are already traps for you in the definition of the book as well as the hero as given in this brief “attestation” and “stipulation,” as the two sections of the prologue are called. One hint of what is to come is that the narrator in this prologue calls the book a “novel,” but in the particular sense of that word that pertains in the Golden State: a novel is not a fictional story but a factual reconstruction, a documentary narrative, drawn from what a reader soon realizes is the extensive surveillance of everyday reality, both public and private. The actual story begins when Laz’s breakfast of chicken and waffles, in what seems like a normal morning in a normal diner, is interrupted by a disturbance: not a noise or an action, but the sensation of a lie being told. Laz moves quickly to uncover the liar, apprehend him, and turn him over to the justice system in which he will be tried and jailed for his crime. When he arrives, after this incident, at his office, he gets both a new assignment and a new trainee, neither of which he sees as having much potential. For one thing, Laz is the prototypical loner detective, dedicated to his job but used to stopping for donuts or a hot dog from a food truck whenever he pleases, without justifying himself to any partner, much less a trainee. But the trainee, Aysa Paige, proves her capabilities quickly, despite Laz’s initial gruff refusal to take her seriously, as they deal with the aftermath of what seems like an accident: a roofer who has fallen to his death. The interplay between Laz and Aysa moves more quickly than we expect in what at first seems a conventional “cop and his trainee” story. This is not a buddy movie or a romance (she’s gay). Aysa is, in a way, the key to the whole tale: she has more clairvoyant power than Laz, despite his 19 years of experience, and he will end up as much following as leading her through a perplexing case as she learns the ropes and explores her innate abilities.
The investigation of the roofer’s apparently accidental death grows more and more complicated as lies and discrepancies accumulate around the incident, drawing the pair of Speculators deep into the nature of the Golden State, as well as into Laz’s own family (his hero brother and father, both pioneering Speculators, are frequently invoked, as well as his ex-wife, who is involved both in the developing web of intrigue around the dead man as well as the archiving process on which the Speculative Service investigation will rely). One of Laz’s key discoveries is that the dead roofer has been hiding a forbidden text, a work of fiction, under a dictionary’s dustcover. When he reads this fiction, he experiences an opening up to multiple realities:
The world as I have understood it is slipping out from under me and I ought to stop but I can’t. I can’t stop. I keep reading and as I read the book settles down over me, it becomes reality as I read it, the air becomes fuzzed, to the point that when I look up it is like the reality of my room is less real than the reality of the book.
This bit of metafictional reference to the experience of reading a novel (in the normal sense of the word) highlights the foundational process of the Golden State, the maintenance of a shared (even enforced) reality. The reader is introduced to the structure of the Golden State’s world though its specific language, in references that are at first unclear (Laz’s uniform includes a “pinhole,” and he refers constantly to “captures,” both of which refer to ubiquitous surveillance devices in the urban environment, which even include roving teams with cameras and boom mics, a surveillance regime that suggests the totalitarian world of Nineteen Eighty-Four as well as the current stream of reality TV and the self-surveillance of social media). Citizens greet one another with truisms of math and science that echo the constant reinforcement of the theocracy in The Handmaid’s Tale. In Atwood’s novel, “under his eye” and “praise be” and so forth are constant reminders of the reality imposed on everyday life by the regime of Gilead. In Golden State, citizens turn to each other at the turn of the hour to state the time and greet one another in ritualized exchanges such as, “‘Ten is half of twenty.’ ‘But it’s twice five.’ ‘So it’s ever been.’ ‘So it ever shall be.’” These reassurances of the solidity of the world are all drawn from math and Newtonian physics: all of the more speculative aspects of science and the uncertainties of quantum physics are set aside, apparently cast out of the “Objectively So.” Creating a world, a reality, is what a novelist does, and Winters is showing us the means of construction of a severe social, rather than fictional, reality. The terms by which the Golden State is maintained suggest a structure described in the sociology of knowledge, by Peter Berger among others: all reality is socially constructed, and the more strictly maintained dominant reality created in a religion (or in this case a totalitarian state) is a “sacred canopy,” an apotropaic construction meant to hold at bay the horrors and threats posed to a group by the uncertainty, enormity, and physical threat of a hostile environment (even which such a threat is artificial). This reality has to be maintained, and in what Berger calls a “masochistic” version of reality maintenance, the occupants of this enclave of reality constantly reinforce their life-world in every detail and all aspects of daily life, including casual greetings. The religious quality of all this maintenance is reinforced by the ritual nature of public behavior, including a “wailing wall” outside the huge structure of the state’s archives, into which citizens insert pages from their Day Books, as private messages to the deified totality of the true.
Laz refers to his profession in the terms of just such an overarching reinforcement of the single allowable truth, when he muses about what he has in common with his ex-wife, who works in the Office of Contingent Reality Reassembly: “There are many things we never had in common — almost everything — but Silvie, bless her, was ever as interested as her man in the byzantine business of reality maintenance.” From the outside, this process of maintenance seems to be the authoritarian imposition of a restricted worldview; from the inside, from Laz’s point of view as an enforcement officer, it is a necessary hygienic process of keeping chaos at bay, reinforcing the foundation of the comfortable, sacred canopy of the Objectively So. As Laszlo says,
Imagine if each person was allowed the luxury of claiming their own truth, building a reality of their own in which they can live. Imagine the danger that would pose, how quickly those lies would metastasize, and the extraordinary threat that would pose to the world.
In a raid on a high-ranking official’s residence, Laz experiences just such a metastasizing truth, when he sees fake “captures,” intended to give the impression of continuous surveillance to a house that is in fact off the grid:
I am feeling […] the wavering world, the air rippling and bending with the unacceptable reality: a dead capture. A forgery. A deliberate undermining of the foundation of the State. […] Horrifying to think of it — so much reality unrecorded, moments racing past. A hundred moments, […] A forever of reality, disappearing as it appears. I am standing in the center of a radius of absence. You don’t realize what a comfort reality is until you leave it, what a good strong feeling is the truth under your feet and in the air around you, how nice it is to be surrounded at all times by the truth. To know that everything is being added to the ledger, that everything that is is, that everything that has happened has happened and will have happened forever […] I am feeling […] the world reeling, the sky becoming suffused with the thick truthless air. We are off the Record.
At a glance, the State is impoverished in terms of metaphor, entertainment, or joy. The only entertainment on offer is the selection of streams of reality cobbled together from the total surveillance system (“Arguments in Restaurants,” “Surprise Proposals,” “Mildly Comical Misunderstandings,” even “Traffic Lights Cycling”) on the ubiquitous wall-mounted screens (suggesting the screens of Nineteen Eighty-Four but without the overt Big Brother propaganda). But not all oblique relations to objective truth are forbidden. Laz informs a woman who is pleading leniency for her son’s lies that her opinions are permitted, being the truth as she sees it. And more poetic truths are also possible, as in a passage that illustrates the more human side of Golden State, a memory of an evening Laz spent with Silvie before their divorce: as they are walking, she points up to the stars and says, “And you see those three — those ones there […] That’s a necklace. A pretty diamond necklace like the one you’ve never bought me.” It’s a gentle joke but he can’t resist answering, “The stars are like diamonds,” but then in retrospect he muses,
Obviously she wasn’t lying; obviously she wasn’t purposefully misrepresenting the nature of the stars. She was enjoying the feeling of the twilight sky, the sturdy feeling of her hand on my arm. She was feeling good, feeling gentle, sharing a plain metaphor with her man.
And there is little other joy portrayed in Golden State: this is a dour authoritarianism, resembling strict religions as much as totalitarian states. Emotional attachments are still possible in this restrained culture.
The story progresses through a series of reversals and revelations that cause Laz to reassess his reality, and at the end some threads are left hanging, some anomalies and even conspiracies remain unclear, but the story opens out into a new appraisal of the uncertainties of the Golden State at the end: tying up everything neatly and objectively would have been a violation of the momentum of the novel. Winters has created a cautionary tale for those who would wall themselves inside a solitary Truth: that task requires enormous effort and results in crippling the mind and limiting the scope of life. His satire is aimed less at Trumpism in particular than at the small-minded, self-congratulatory tunnel vision into which many have retreated in uncertain times. Though there is some mention of a wall along the state’s border, Winters’s novel is actually not primarily a political satire; instead, it is an epistemological noir, an investigation of how reality is constructed and maintained: there is no reference until late in the story to the state of truth, lies, and distrust in America today, or of how and why the Golden State seceded from the United States.
At the center of the novel, there is a passage in which Winters uses a word that vibrates with an oscillation between two opposite meanings. As he is being vetted by the Librarians in the Great Hall of the Permanent Record, Laz muses that even now, they are recording the process, taking notes and capturing the stream of sound and visuals, “getting it all down. Reality being forged, the Record being made, even here at the threshold of the Record itself.” That “forged” describes both the immense, even physical effort of establishing the reality of the Golden State, but also refers to the falsification or at least partiality of any such endeavor. The reality of the Golden State is a forgery (the word used by Laz in the face of the fake captures), imposed by an authoritarian totalism, a denial of the overlapping multiple realities in which we live, and a sign of capitulation to fear of the unknown, even unknowable, relationship of our mental lives and any kind of objective reality. Truth, as forged in a negotiation based on observable evidence, is a social pact rather than an executive decision. Winters demonstrates, with a tense and sometimes comic narrative rather than tendentious commentary, that truth is always a forgery, a partial reconstruction that can only be tested, reformulated, and reconsidered for its coherence with life as it is lived.