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BOOK REVIEW: Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson

BOOK REVIEW: Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson

Candlewick Press
November 2017
Paperback, $24.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Young Adult / Social Satire

8/10

 

When the vuvv first landed, it came as a surprise to aspiring artist Adam and the rest of planet Earth — but not necessarily an unwelcome one. Can it really be called an invasion when the vuvv generously offered free advanced technology and cures for every illness imaginable?

We were all surprised when the vuvv landed the first time. They’d been watching us since the 1940s, and we’d seen them occasionally, but we had all imagined them differently. They weren’t slender and delicate, and they weren’t humanoid at all. They looked more like granite coffee tables: squat, wide, and rocky. We were just glad they weren’t invading.

As it turns out, yes.

With his parents’ jobs replaced by alien tech and no money for food, clean water, or the vuvv’s miraculous medicine, Adam and his girlfriend, Chloe, have to get creative to survive. And since the vuvv crave anything they deem “classic” Earth culture (doo-wop music, still-life paintings of fruit, true love), recording 1950s-style dates for the vuvv to watch in a pay-per-minute format seems like a brilliant idea.

“It’s new to them,” said Chloe. “Holding hands. They pay to watch humans in love. It would be fun.”
I was horrified at first.
“Like porn?” I said.
She thought about it uncomfortably. “But love,” she said. “1950s love. That’s what they want. That’s what they saw from their saucers, so that’s what they think we do.”

But it’s hard for Adam and Chloe to sell true love when they hate each other more with every passing episode.

Needless to say, 1950s-dating someone you live with is a huge mistake.

Soon enough, Adam must decide how far he’s willing to go — and what he’s willing to sacrifice — to give the vuvv what they want.

 

In Landscape with Invisible Hand, Anderson delivers a story that is about an advanced alien race coming in and changing things without thinking about those at the lower end of the financial chain, but it’s also a kind of satire of our own, non-alien adjacent existence (as far as we know).

Almost no one had work since the vuvv came. They promised us tech that would heal all disease and would do all our work for us, but of course no one thought about the fact that all that tech would be owned by someone and would be behind a paywall.

This is a story about money struggles and class – about the lengths to which middle-class people might go when suddenly finding themselves without enough money to survive, and the further division between the 1% and everyone else, should such alien technology suddenly become available to the people of Earth.

We went on scavenging trips together in the shadow of the floating houses of Barrington. We hoped we could find some furniture or something to sell. The weird thing about the rich, though, is that when they’re done using something, they don’t want anyone else using it either. They want their trash to be trash. As if having a sofa in a house on the ground taints its history in a house up in the sky. As if we, down on the ground, would pull one of their fancy pre-vuvv stereo amps out of the garbage heap and somehow claw our way back along the cord, shimmying up it into the clouds and climbing into their living rooms fee-fi-fo-fum.

The assumption of those with money that getting out of a tight situation is as easy as applying for a job.

And the pundits talk about how if we spent less time complaining about the vuvv and more time following their example, investing smartly in vuvv tech – if we’d just get up off our duffs, stand up from our Barcaloungers, and go out and actually work – then maybe we wouldn’t all be starving and demanding food we haven’t actually worked for.

How relationship struggles can become all the more troublesome when put under the strain of being constantly watched.

As cool as it had been, when we were in love, to broadcast that love everywhere, as if we were stars or models, once we didn’t really want to spend much time with each other anymore, our episodes became torture. Knowing we were always being watched by and unseen audience made an embarrassing situation even more awkward.

And how painful it can be to watch those you care about grow up far too quickly, due to the struggles they’ve been forced to face.

And as strong as an ache, I want to take her in my arms and tell her the stuffies are real, my god, please, please, they’re real. I want to beg her not to throw her childhood away. “They’re your history in animals,” I want to say, “And I love who you’ve been, and I love who you’re going to be when you’re older. So I love them.

So instead, secretly, in my room, I draw them all. I sketch them in their rows, like the years of her childhood, Acre and French Fry and Lulu and Susan and Up and all the rest, organised alphabetically.
Someday I’ll give it to her. When everything is better. The natural history of her life, sketched out, because nothing means as much until it has vanished.

But it’s told in a satirical, sometimes over-the-top way that stops the reader from feeling too bleak or hopeless.

Each episode had a little title and a description translated into vuvv. “Ocean Memories: Humans Adam and Chloe are going to the beach now! They are in true love. They have playful splashing. The water is too cold for organism Adam and he squeals like a piggy, says loving Chloe! Humans find the oscillating presence of hundreds of billions of gallons of a chemical that could smother them relaxing.”

The vuvv poetry is particularly entertaining.

Now, my darling, comes the glorious spring,
And I find true beauty in your everything:
Your arms, so slender, and your meaty shanks,
Your long head-bristles that hang down in hanks;
The discolored skin around the hole with which you bite,
The wet face-patches, so sensitive to light…

And at the heart of it all, even underneath Adam’s own hopes the vuvv will appreciate his artwork and reward him well for it, there is a backbone of human resilience, of “bouncebackability”, and an understanding of just what things – or people – a person needs with them in order to survive.

Then there’s silence while a grand piano rolls out onto center stage my itself. A girl who was sitting near me in the balcony follows it out under the lights – scrawny, in a black dress that just hangs straight down. She sits down to play. She looks furious, like she hates everyone in the audience. I am, of course, instantly in love.

 

 

At 149 pages with rather short chapters, this is the kind of book you can easily get through in a sitting, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. There is a lot to unpack here, and this would make a great book for high-school or university students to study in more depth, what with its comparisons to our own unsteady times and growing up in general.

It can also be read and enjoyed for a satirical story without further examination, of course, but it is worth noting Anderson’s skill in presenting us with such depth in a story so short.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson

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