Neural prosthetics, weaponized robotics. A web of crime spanning East Asia, enticing and ensnaring many. Cooperation and collusion between government and industry. Corporations unfettered by national borders. Blurred lines between good and evil. Mercury is a technothriller set in an all-too-plausible future, rich in scientific detail and colored by vivid international backdrops. But at its core are ideas about the state of the world, moral ambiguities, and dark psychological dilemmas.
English-language novels about countries abroad, and particularly East Asia, tend to emphasize the “otherness” of the setting. When the protagonists are American, they are almost never able to speak foreign languages, and in the rare instances they can, they are praised for their skill and intellect. It is as if monolingualism is the rule rather than the unique American exception it really is.
Not all novels with international settings are culpable. Bangkok 8 treats this superbly. It is clear this stems from the author’s genuine experiences. Readers immediately feel a sense of familiarity with a culture that may very well be entirely new to them. They are immersed in the backdrop without being lost and without suffering a torrent of explanations. John Burdett reveals bits and pieces of Thai culture in a subtle matter-of-fact manner, a smoothness that this author appreciates.
Faux multiculturalism is the enemy. Describing foreign food as “strange,” overexplaining unfamiliar customs, referencing well-known landmarks mostly visited by tourists – these do nothing to help the reader explore different cultures. The mundane details of everyday life are the real differences. How one opens doors, how one stands in elevators, how one holds one’s utensils, how one votes in elections, how one orders food – these are important cultural differences. And here we return to Heidegger. The everyday details, the simple actions one performs without thinking, form our being, and that being is colored by our respective cultures. Change these small automatic actions, and one’s identity will change in turn. Location is irrelevant.
No one can deny that globalism means these mundane details have become more uniform across different cultures. Rather than emphasize “otherness,” authors should present life in other countries as it really is, which, for better or worse, has become increasingly Westernized.
The settings in Mercury draw from my own experiences, years of working in labs and companies, years of mundane activities like paying bills or filing taxes in Japanese. Familiarity with the minutiae of everyday life is what makes one settle into a culture, not extensive traveling to every temple, memorizing historical trivia, or worse, engaging in traditional cultural activities like calligraphy not for its own sake, but to show off one’s “multiculturalism.” That is not to say traveling or calligraphy are not worthwhile. Rather, these fall outside of everyday life for most people. Wherever one may live, there is work in the morning, and there are bills to pay.
Dark Psychologies and Insecure Identities
Characterization is the last and arguably most important aspect of Mercury. There are no untainted characters in Mercury. Everyone is compromised in some way. This is by no means new to fiction. There are countless novels and films that explore blurring distinctions between good and evil, but one common theme is that characters become tainted through self-interest. Succumbing to greed and temptation, or falling prey to blackmail, characters face pressure from external forces to act immorally.
Mercury turns this on its head. The novel’s characters are just as compromised, not by external forces, but rather by their own psychological issues. At least in this thematic aspect, Angelica is the central character. Her instability raises deep questions of morality. Her manic-depressive behavior and her propensity for violence set the tone of the novel: dark and unpredictable, but punctuated by positive emotion when the timing is right. Angelica’s true nature is a mystery left unsolved. Whether she is a protagonist or an antagonist is ultimately up to the reader to decide.
The microinteractions between characters are crucial as well. The male gaze is a recurring motif throughout the novel, especially in regard to Mei. She is particularly cognizant of the involuntary, almost neurotic fixation on physical appearance that men manifest toward women. There is no value judgment here. To ignore the male gaze, to pretend it does not exist is to do injustice and to cleanse the male characters in an unrealistic, patronizing manner. The reader is given full access to the psyches of the characters – the view may be beautiful, disturbing, or something else entirely.
Developmental psychology confirms what is known to all: one’s appearance affects reactions from others, and those reactions shape one’s identity. Even those who claim not to care about their appearances do care by the very fact that they had to consciously choose not to care. There is no escape from this cycle.
Of course, people learn to cope with this. They develop stable identities in the face of the judgmental “other.” But not Mei. Her domain expertise in technology only makes things worse. She overanalyzes her appearance and the behavior men display toward her. She breaks things down, fixates on them, letting her resentment boil and consume her.
The complex psychological landscapes of Angelica, Mei, and other characters in Mercury create a new experience for readers, a layered story to slowly digest behind a thrilling plot.
A Novel Equal Parts Plot and Character
Housing all these different elements is one overarching idea: the dream of a novel strong in both plot and character. The tradeoff between plotting and character development is a false dichotomy. If anything, complex, well-formed characters enhance the depth and intricacy of a plot. The motivations and inner conflicts of characters drive the plot forward. Genre fiction in modern times, both in print and on screen, seems to have diverged into action-packed thrillers populated by one-dimensional characters and “literary” works with nuanced characters stuck in rambling, aimless plots.
But fiction strong in both departments is nothing new. The Brothers Karamazov comes to mind. 1984 comes to mind. So do Reservoir Dogs and Fullmetal Jacket.
The vision behind Mercury is to introduce strong characterization to the technothriller. Too many technothrillers fall into the trap of sacrificing character development to make room for intricate plots with twists and turns and long, detailed technical explanations. Not only is there room for character development in these densely constructed worlds, but these worlds become richer when inhabited by complex characters. Mercury shows that an exciting, tech-heavy storyline can not only survive character development, but on the contrary is enhanced by it. When characters are simplified and stripped of the messy humanity that makes them interesting, the story suffers.
If Mercury can inspire a shift in fiction toward this direction, however small, the novel will have done its job.