Monumental Muting: A Review of Mat Johnson’s Invisible Things

Monumental Muting: A Review of Mat Johnson’s Invisible Things

Jeremy Brett

Under Review:
Invisible Things, Mat Johnson. One World, June 2022.

One recurring lesson in science fiction is the realization—in all its sadness and its joy—that we take into outer space everything that makes us who and what we are, everything that makes us human. Space may be an unforgiving and hostile environment, but at its most basic it is merely another arena in which we find ourselves living out the fears, loves, prejudices, and profound imperfections that make up the human condition. In Invisible Things, Mat Johnson places his examination of racial and societal privilege within the context of a space exploration narrative, demonstrating that the mere act of traveling into outer space does not change who we are as human beings. Indeed, the novel is infuriating in its familiarity, in that everything is so sadly, frighteningly reminiscent of the world in which we currently find ourselves trapped.

Nalini Jackson is a sociologist, traveling aboard the cryoship Delany towards Jupiter on humanity’s first manned mission to that planet. Her situation will be familiar to many a woman or a person of color: she is living in close quarters with a gaggle of white male mediocrities she groups together as “The Bobs”, dudebros notable for a complete lack of earned accomplishments. The long voyage, during which Nalini bonds with Dwayne Causwell (the two of them are the only Black crew members), comes to a dramatic halt when the Delany discovers that Jupiter’s moon Europa is occupied by a domed settlement, one that perfectly mimics an American city: “City streets. Expressways. Parks. Cargo containers of supplies that arrive into the bubble from who knows where…All with brand names anyone on Earth would recognize.” New Roanoke is populated by people who mysteriously disappeared on Earth (a nice counterpart to the original Roanoke Colony), and governed by elites descended from the original ‘settlers’. It is a peaceful, stable autocracy masquerading as a free democracy, powered primarily by stasis, self-satisfaction, and a dedication to the status quo. As Nalini defines the rule of the colony’s “Founders Party”:

On its surface, posters of smile and strength and national pride, which Nalini associated with the deniable malignance of soft-core fascism. An emphasis on tradition and “New Roanokan values”, which she took as a polite way to advocate for a nativist power structure in a world where foreigners were plopped down on a regular basis. On honoring God, as a way for a party of humans to claim divine rights.

The Delany crew settles into this new (yet not new) environment of stifling American conformity, with mission commander Bob Seaford slotting himself into the smug and comfortable elite, Nalini trying to eke out a new life of normalcy (while secretly working on a detailed analysis of New Roanoke that sets the colony within stereotypical academic framing), and Dwayne becoming a vocal member of the token opposition Party of the People. This uneasy situation is rocked by the arrival of a United Nations-sponsored rescue mission, which includes an eccentric philanthropist and his chauffeur, Chase Eubanks. Chase is determined to locate his missing wife, whom he believes to be the subject of an alien abduction and who turns up, alive and well, on New Roanoke. Chase is seduced by the promises of Bob and the unquestioning materialistic society he represents. 

It is, of course, the same phenomenon we see here in the real world with subjects such as climate change or America’s lingering legacy of racism.

Particularly interesting is that it’s surprisingly easy to forget that this story is a science fiction one, taking place in deep space on a distant planetary moon. It could fairly easily be read as a typical story of middle-class life and suburban angst, except… Except for the otherworldly forces, the “invisible things” that seem to be directing events in New Roanoke. Forces that lift people in the air, cause strange physical reactions, and (in at least one spectacularly colorful incident) can murder people in bloody, dramatic fashion. Mutual agreement exists among New Roanokans not to discuss or even mention these things. Nalini describes the phenomenon to rescue ship commander Admiral Ethel Dodson as “Monumental Muting: the societal habit of avoiding topics so monumentally intractable that discussing them has no positive outcomes and countless negatives ones. If they’re no definitive answers, and every time you talk about it you risk offending or alienating others, why bother?”  The willful blindness is so real that, at one point, Bob is publicly levitated and physically manipulated by one of the invisible things. Yet after being visibly assaulted, he rises to proclaim that “‘There’s no such things as those things. But there are true patriots….And I am a true patriot!”’

Nalini puts her finger exactly on what plagues New Roanoke—the refusal to accept reality and, consequently, any attempt to deal with it constructively or effectively. It is, of course, the same phenomenon we see here in the real world with subjects such as climate change or America’s lingering legacy of racism. Looking away is not the sign of a healthy or rational society, whether in the United States or the New Roanoke colony. Mass denialism, Johnson argues, is the ultimate “invisible thing” that pushes away all others and keeps us from grappling with the other intangibles that prevent humanity from growing—injustice, inequality, fear of the other and of the different. (In one scene, characters explore a massive underground cave populated by hungry, desperate refugees—people excluded by the colony’s Founders as outside their stifling vision. The Cavern denizens are themselves a class of invisible things, stored out of sight and mind).

These invisible things are seductive, capturing the hearts of the well-meaning as well as the malignant. Between Bob (wholehearted, blind acceptance), Chase (reluctant acceptance), Nalini (resignation and quiet questioning), and Dwayne (wholehearted resistance), Johnson presents the reader with a continuum of responses to societal toxicity that will be familiar to every denizen of similar societies, including our own. Johnson is neither shy nor subtle about his narrative aims, using an interplanetary setting as an obvious stand-in for American culture. The charm of Invisible Things is not in subtlety, but in Johnson’s characteristic witty writing and incisive observations about American society and the hypocrisies and individual struggles that help structure that society.

Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Librarian at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch; the author is a regular reviewer for ARB. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Chad Hines. A review copy was arranged by ARB from the publisher.

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