Relentlessly cynical and sarcastic, Mat Johnson’s Invisible Things offers sociopolitical commentary wrapped in the trappings of a classic space adventure.
An unknown force has been plucking humans from Earth and bringing them to New Roanoke, an American city that has been constructed miraculously and mysteriously on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and sheltered from the elements by an enormous dome. These humans, as humans do, have simply re-created everything that America represents today—all the same class struggles, hardships and, of course, consumption. (The word McMansion is used several times.) When the first manned mission to Jupiter discovers New Roanoke, the SS Delany‘s crew soon find themselves trapped along with the colonists.
Johnson uses the astronauts of the Delany and their reactions to the world of New Roanoke to represent strains of modern politics: Sociologist Nalini Jackson is a left-leaning moderate who provides dry, dissociative commentary; Dwyane Causwell, a highly accredited astrogeologist, is a liberal eager to spark revolution; and born-to-money engineer Bob Seaford, who is eager for any semblance of control and power over his fellow humans, represents the capitalist hard-right.
As you might imagine from these descriptions, Johnson’s political stance is clear. However, Invisible Things avoids soapbox territory as Johnson focuses instead on engaging, often funny conflicts between his well-drawn characters while the plot circles around two key questions: Will New Roanoke’s inhabitants and the crew of the Delany band together to escape the colony? And who put them there in the first place? The intriguing mystery combined with Johnson’s irreverent sense of humor make it easy for the reader to engage with the satirical elements—a refreshing trait given that social commentary in modern sci-fi is often either watered down, thrown in by default or both.
Invisible Things is a wonderful sci-fi ride full of lovable characters that dissects modern American capitalism with a barbed, sardonic wit.