Albert Brooks is a comedian and filmmaker best known for writing and directing some notable comedies during the past three decades, including Lost in America, Mother, Modern Romance and Defending Your Life. While none of these are considered bona fide classics by any stretch of the imagination, they’ve tended to be good, well-constructed films, and definitely worth checking out. (He’s also an actor who might be most known for his voice role as the neurotic father fish in Pixar’s Finding Nemo, and he received an Academy Award nomination for his work in 1987’s Broadcast News.)
With 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, Brooks takes the leap into the world of novel writing and, like much of his film output, he has turned in a book that can be considered to be solidly crafted, but by no means timeless. 2030 is an interesting speculative fiction yarn about the state of America in some 20 odd years, though it’s also a bit of a flawed gem.
While one might be quick to lump 2030 into the genre of science fiction, the book has a different feel to it than most books of that genre. Science fiction tends to make fetish objects out of technology, and everything else tends to take a back seat to ideas and imagination. 2030, on the surface, may appear to be no different, but once you start getting deeper into the book, it becomes apparent that Brooks’ view is more philosophical, a a treatise on the future state of America as a nation, and how different sociological groups will come to view each other. Sure, there are moments when Brooks speculates on where technology will take us – cancer will be cured by 2014, movies will be projected in hologram style, and planes will be able to fly without any pilots – but he’s more concerned about the present trajectory of the country’s current policies, and how they may come to bite the nation on the collective rear end in two decades time.
Despite Brooks’ background in comedy, 2030, particularly in its last third, is a bit of a dour book and is meant as both a warning and a prophecy if the world continues to turn unchecked. That’s not to say that there aren’t humorous moments to be found in Brooks’ first novel. Early on in the proceedings, one character remarks at a watch that you can communicate with others with by comparing it to the same style of communications device that Dick Tracy would use – a favourite of this character’s childhood comics collection. The character then goes on to wonder what would have happened technologically if he had read Wonder Woman, instead. (Insert ba-dum-dump drum sound and snare shot, here.)
There are light-hearted moments like this sprinkled throughout the book, at least in its first two thirds, but they’re there to accentuate a thought, not necessarily entertain. When it gets right down to it, Brooks has some dead serious divinations to proclaim, and really wants the reader to walk away from 2030 with the compulsion to do something about the way society is headed.
There’s a lot that goes on within 2030’s nearly 400 pages, and there are almost sub-plots within sub-plots. However, the general gist of the book goes something like this: thanks to the aforementioned cancer cure and the eradication of other aliments that would otherwise affect an aging population, the late-period baby boomers will have, by the year of the book in question, become the most populous and single-handedly influential generation on the planet – even if many of them have lapsed into comas and are being kept alive by feeding tubes and machines in convalescent homes.
Of course, this opens up a serial aspect about euthanasia, and whether or not a person should be allow to hang on to life as long as possible, even though this may place terrible demands upon the health care system. According to Brooks, the reluctance of the boomers to accede power will have a tremendous impact on the lives of 20-somethings, those people being born right now, who will become saddled with an insurmountable debt to keep their parents either alive.
As a result, Brooks predicts a kind of generational war between grandparents and children, one that the author feels will go so far as to incite acts of violence and terrorism against “the olds” by frustrated young people who feel that they don’t have any sort of political voice or clout. In this aspect of the book, Brooks is very sympathetic to the plight of the future’s youth, and reasons very well that the boomers – thanks to their coddled upbringing – will place such a demand on the backs of the millennials that the future for these people will be bleak, miserable and very dystopian-esque.
As Brooks reasons, the youth of 2030 may just very well be the first generation to not better themselves over the previous generation, thanks to their parents’ health care bills and lack of really meaningful job opportunities. Of course, the same thing was said about Generation X some 20 years ago, too, but it seems that that generation more or less is turning out OK.
That old versus young argument would be roughly one half of Brooks’ convincing case about the state of the future. The other part of the book notes that, in 20 years time, America will be so far in debt that when a calamity strikes on American soil – such as the forthcoming “Big One” earthquake on the San Andreas Fault – the country will be unable to rebuild entire cities that could be affected. Brooks’ hypothetical solution is that the United States government would have to make a deal with the much more financially sound China, and let it country embark on a 50/50 partnership where it would literally co-own the western part of the continental US and share in any of the tax revenue generated by that region.
To Brooks’ reasoning, this partnership will go off so well that it will open up all sorts of other ramifications – including amending the Constitution to allow foreign born American citizens to legally run for the country’s highest office: the presidency. It’s hard to say if Brooks views this kind of development to be a good or a bad thing, but he posits that it could very much become a reality, and ultimately change the face of an entire nation.
While this insightful look ahead is very well reasoned and thought out – you get the indication that the ideas Brooks presents here must have been percolating over a very long period of time – the novel does fall a little flat in its characterizations. Brooks falls victim to the science fiction pitfall of creating “info dumps”, which are paragraphs that explain away the technological advancements and ideas about what may befall America, which means that meaningful, well rounded characters tend to take a backseat to all of the hypothesizing. It’s notable that the hardcover’s inner flaps makes no mention of the major or minor characters that populate Brooks’ universe: it’s as though the people who spill out of his’ imagination and onto the page are merely second fiddle and are like puppets for the main points that he wants to hammer home. As a result, characters disappear very early on without being mentioned again and new characters are introduced well into the second half of the novel who play a pivotal part in the narrative.
What’s more, there’s very little insight into character motivation. For example, we find out that one young person in this book, who turns out to be a revolutionary figure in the fight against the state of entitlement that the elderly generally have, is actually extremely wealthy about halfway through 2030. So then why does this character have a gripe against his older counterparts when he’s considerably more well off than most of his peers, and made his money by being a shareholder in the corporation that cured cancer? We don’t know, but it becomes very convenient that he’s so loaded, because he’ll need the money to actually take up his fight against “the olds”.
There’s another aspect that hurts the quality of 2030: a feeling of ‘been there, done that’. This book follows hot on the heels of last year’s superb Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, which covers much of the same ground, at least from a futuristic ideas perspective, but boasts solid characterizations and a framing relationship to really hold onto. Being a bit behind the times might not be Brooks’ or his publisher’s fault, as who knows how long this novel has been gestating? Still, there is a marked sense of déjà vu to the proceedings.
Even Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, another literary title from last year, speculates on life in 10 years time in the concluding chapters – though to a much lesser extent than Shteyngart’s or Brooks’ work. Thus, Brooks’ debut feels part of a literary trend, and not an overtly original idea. Timing has therefore diluted much of 2030’s impact, making it appear to be a bit of an also-ran.
Still, even though 2030 suffers from being too close to other novels of the same ilk and a lack of fully three-dimensional characters that you can really get involved in, the ideation is sound and the book is an enjoyable, page turning read. Its pronouncements may be more depressing than enlightening, and one could argue that Brooks might have been better off interviewing some futurists and penning a non-fiction work to strengthen his agenda. However, Brooks shows some level of competency in going beyond his usual craft of filmmaking into new, uncharted territory by penning a novel – and one that is as unflinching as 2030.
Whether you agree with Brooks’ crystal ball gazing as to where America is going is another matter altogether, but his contention is gripping and compelling, and it’s a starting point for debate on issues affecting youth as well as those surrounding the looming debt crisis. If cancer isn’t cured in three years, say, the book could swiftly become a bit of a dated relic, but 2030, for all of its Nostradamus-like prophesising is very much a novel for the present. It’s a thoughtful examination of the can of worms that it threatening to cripple an entire nation, and the best take-away from this book is that something needs to be done now to prevent the serious fissures that could erupt if things continue status quo. In Brooks’ view, we’d merely sit on the sidelines and watch it all happen, just as he acutely predicts.