The Many Roads to Revolution: Review of Paperclip by Seb Doubinsky
Paperclip. By Seb Doubinsky. Meerkat Press, August 2021.
Is a revolution possible for a population that is increasingly isolated, lonely, and confused? If a population cannot see itself as a collective, what will fill that void? Even if a mass movement is not tenable, individuals may find ways to engage in small revolutionary acts. But do these actions extend beyond their own psyches—do they add up to something more? Seb Doubinsky’s Paperclip made me wonder about this tension. I found myself asking: how much of what we do in response to society is for us and how much is for others?
Part of his City States cycle, Doubinsky’s Paperclip takes place in New Babylon, a titular city-state in the near-future world of the series. This world is familiar: a billionaire seeks refuge in the stars, nationalist populism looms ominously, and ordinary people try to make sense of it all by consulting esoteric rituals. Told in Doubinsky’s signature vignette style, Paperclip’s short chapters follow a set of characters whose lives occasionally overlap. They are not all redeemable, but they’re all searching for meaning in the emptiness that pervades New Babylon.
Kurt Wagner and Susan DeVeere are the two biggest pieces on Doubinsky’s chess board. Wagner is a billionaire who mass produces weapons for New Babylon. By night he takes the drug “synth”—a touchstone of Doubinsky’s City State Novels— using it to escape reality and envision himself on the space station high above the earth he dreams of building in reality. DeVeere is a film-maker who aims to capture a revolution that’s taken place in another city-state, where women revolutionary leaders have decided to kidnap the CEOs of companies that have commited “economic crimes”. Wagner dreams of colonizing the darkness above the earth; DeVeere plans to use a voice-over in her film, despite the requests of the country’s leaders, thus colonizing their story with her own perspective.
Despite abundant wealth, Wagner finds his life meaningless. This may be why he has decided to believe he is humanity’s savior. DeVeere wants admiration, to be lauded for her revolutionary work. But what does success look like, and what is she willing to do to get it? Perhaps these characters are not as different as they’d like to believe; early in the novel, we learn they’ve slept together in the past. Both pursue ambitions that they tell themselves is for a greater good. But both characters are captured by their own goals, making their own success and inner fulfillment primary.
Three other main characters populate this novel. Omar is Wagner’s bodyguard and plans to kidnap him for the SankaraVille revolution. Wagner’s driver Jet reads foundational works of magick in his spare time. Finally, there’s Waldo, a man living in New Babylon, relatively disconnected from other characters, who inexplicably transforms into a bird and remains so for the rest of the novel.
Waldo’s life as a bird serves as a welcome source of cosmic perspective in between the political turmoil and messy lives of Paperclip’s other characters. We do not know how Waldo transformed into a bird. And we don’t need to. In his dream, Waldo perched on the shoulder of the Buddha. In what might or might not be reality, Waldo gains insight into the world of humans by flying far above them, attaining a kind of enlightenment:
“From here, from the top of this nothingness humans call “air,” he was the tiny master of his own feathery destiny. And it made him see everything through the lens of the natural impermanence of all things. Maps changed over time. You just didn’t realize it when you were down there, changing with them.”
Waldo’s chapters are a joy to read. They aim at something like a larger view of reality. When taking nature into account, the struggles of New Babylon—or Earth or even humanity itself—can seem insignificant. When viewed from above, what is the significance of shifting political power? And yet, there is a touch of sadness to these chapters as well, because the truth is that Waldo is only able to experience these states, valid as they may be, after he has ceased being human.
The title of Paperclip is multi-layered. It refers to a ritual that takes place in the latter half of the novel. But it refers primarily to Operation Paperclip, the US intelligence program which brought Nazi scientists to America. Wagner, we learn, is descended from a member of this program. And while he distinguishes himself from a Nazi, he has ultimately inherited a worldview that incorporates its own eugenics. Wagner’s space station, he clarifies, will be only for the purest of the earth. It is an escape from the petty struggles of the common people. After watching not one but multiple billionaires build space-faring technology (and receive congratulations from the United States government) in the middle of a global pandemic, this part of Doubinsky’s novel feels uniquely relevant in contemporary science fiction.
For me, the most engaging aspect of Paperclip is its honest attempt to examine our actual predicament. Each character in Paperclip wants to change the world. And each character is nonetheless constrained by their individuality. Collective action seems impossible for them. True collaboration feels like a distant dream. What is the validity of different revolutionary modes? Is black magic, as practiced by Jet, revolutionary in its own way? And is film-making, with its ability to show people the realities of other lives capable of being revolutionary by showing the truth? These questions seem to be asked honestly, and examined honestly, not shying away from their pitfalls. Doubinsky examines many roads to revolution: political, artistic, spiritual, technological, and transcendent. We are not left with answers but with much to consider and a story that is both readable and engaging; characters I was happy to spend time with as they searched for meaning in a lonely world.
Franco Romero is a writer and editor from Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is the host of the literary podcast Left The Hose On and is working towards a Master of Fine Arts degree at the Institute of American Indian Arts. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.
This review was commissioned by editor Jake Casella Brookins from a pitch from our calls-for review in June 2021. The author and editor had no prior relationship; the author of Paperclip is also a contributor to ARB, but was not a contributor at the time of this review’s commission. A review copy was provided by Meerkat Press.