Book Review: Kalifornia
Kalifornia is unrelated to the film of the same title, which is something of a shame because the entire story revolves around celebrity and a blockbuster film with an all-star cast that is explicitly called out as being white despite having adopted Hispanic names would have been glorious. Technically this book could be filed under the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction although it veers in the direction of “cyberprep” several times; the technological developments that are usually the source of strife in cyberpunk provide an even amount of joy through the entertainment that they provide in this setting.
The book follows a once great celebrity family after their fall from favour following the death of one of their members and the subsequent cancellation of their show. The scifi element of this is that the “shows” are fully immersive recordings lifted directly from the players artificially implanted nervous systems, allowing viewers to completely immerse themselves in the characters. Something that becomes all the more horrifying when you see the prevalence of constant streaming reality television in the setting.
California of the later eighties and early nineties is perfectly extrapolated into the setting of this story, with sushi and fusion cuisine available as readily is oxygen and the many new wave religious sects exploding into a whole section turned over to them to build a Holy City, devoid from the depravity and degradation of the outside world. There are certain predicted elements that haven’t yet come to pass, and the changing direction of politics and culture has undermined some of the decisions that the author has made, but looking from the vantage point of the late eighties, everything in Kalifornia seems more than plausible and more importantly, the purpose of science fiction is not to predict the future, it is to provide insight into possibilities; something that Kalifornia handles beautifully.
The spiritual elements of the book are brief, with most of the wilfully shallow characters only interaction with it being entirely on the surface level, but those subtle hints that the meshing of technology and humanity may have given birth to divinity persist in little hints throughout the story. While there are spiritual scenarios encountered by the cast, they experience them only in terms that they understand, with some of them even choosing to pursue an ascetic life simply because it pleases them to experience it.
There is a peaceful lack of judgement in the writing, sometimes the characters are inclined to judge the outrageous behaviour of those around them, but just as frequently they remind themselves of the circumstances that shaped them and their own actions. Even the patriarch of the family who immediately moves to exploit the family’s latest tragedy for the revival of his career isn’t judged harshly. He is the product of his upbringing and the environment in which he has spent his life and behaves as such.
This flat level of amorality provides a great deal of the novels’ old-fashioned moralist storytelling appeal, something that the cyberpunk genre is usually devoid of. When characters act out, when they do good instead of coasting along as always, you feel some genuine pride in them for making a better choice than they might have. Similarly, when the only faintly ethical characters receive something resembling a just reward, it is easy to feel satisfaction.
Kalifornia is not as well known a work as it should be, occupying its odd little cul-de-sac of science fiction history, but the good humoured writing, carefully paced mystery and surprisingly relatable characters make it a more than welcome addition to any reader’s library.