Post-apocalyptic life seems much better for some, much worse for others.
A new way of bringing old fiction back to life: take Hjortsberg’s 1971 novel Gray Matters and 1972 novella “Symbiography,” package them with a couple of new stories set in the same universe and, voila! In the early 1970s, there was dystopia as far as the eye could see, and in “Symbiography,” the world inhabited by Par Sondak is only deceptively attractive. Even though Par lives in a completely automated house and dreams for his living—bringing him a pretty penny from those willing to pay for such things—his house, and the bubble cities inhabited by his clients, is surrounded by the vast wastelands of post-apocalypse America. When Par brings one of the wasteland’s denizens into his sanctuary (this is a house that does much more than make the bed) in order to hijack the guest’s experiences for his own dream output, the result is an unexpected mind-melding experience at least as confusing to the characters as it is to the reader. Gray Matters puts us even farther into the future, in a world where most of humanity lives underground in a hermetically controlled environment—usually sans bodies. Hjortsberg tracks three of these disembodied entities—they were, before becoming just heavily pampered brains, a 12-year-old plane crash survivor, an Eastern European actress of some renown, and a sculptor—as they try to break out of this virtual prison in their own ways. Hjortsberg knows his post-apocalyptic tropes inside and out, having blazed quite a few trails of his own, but his characters are a stunted and juvenile lot. The result makes for an effective statement on technology’s infantilizing effect on humanity, but it curbs involvement on the reader’s part.
Muddled at times, though an energetic groundbreaker that deserves another chance.