(Clash Books, 2020)
Rone Shavers’s debut novel Silverfish is a lively, intelligent, and ambitious book, and refreshingly difficult to categorize. It is an experimental work that combines elements of sci-fi, dystopian, and war fiction with linguistic and literary theory, intertextuality and metacommentary, multiple perspectives and voices, social criticism and satire—all of which is injected with pace and humor and firmly grounded in an Afrofuturistic stance. One of the text’s central concerns is whether language can lose its power to transform the world, and that this slim volume manages to be so complex and inventive while also being so entertaining to read is a fitting testament to Shavers’s writerly preoccupations and prowess.
The work opens with a first-person prologue delivered by Elegba, the Yoruba trickster god of the crossroads, intermediary between the human and the divine, “translator and transmitter of mind … myth, maker, myth-maker, and metaphor.” He has appeared on this occasion to exhort us to “play language” and to tell us a “story of you, or people like you, or people who were once like you and will be again,” which is to say a tale of a possible future that some of us will hear and heed and, in turn, “know how to survive.”
But survive what? In the first instance, the brutal and stultifying conditions of the novel’s alternate reality, a world where multinational corporations, the military-industrial complex, financial services, information, and bio-technology industries have all joined forces to create a global hellscape of incorporated nation-states under the rule of “corporatocracy.” In this age of Profit Wars, there are routine, militarized invasions of “primitive” territories led by nigh-indestructible cyborg warriors—enhanced humans known as “Angels”—with the expressed intent of correcting fluctuations in the Dow, bolstering markets, and “incentivizing investment.” Unbeknownst to the “combat associates” (formerly called soldiers) on these missions, they are as expendable to their “civilized” paymasters as the “prims” they reflexively slaughter, but they may be rewarded with raises, promotions, and “social stock options,” depending on the recommendations of their “financial advisors,” in the unlikely event they return.
As the action begins, Elegba conjures or transports us to one such invasionary “jump”—“a standard extraction, a search and destroy operation”—albeit told from the multi-layered, first-person perspective of an Angel, a “self-aware artificial intelligence that relies upon biological parts and systems,” i.e., “cyborg technology.” The Angel’s brain is connected directly to a vast network of information, which it constantly “spools” in order to stay up-to-date on crucial facts, such as the current position and trends of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Although the Angel can both answer questions from lesser-enhanced humans and respond to commands, its language capabilities are otherwise limited, and the distinguishing feature of Angel consciousness at the outset of the work is that the Angel experiences a running series of thoughts within its own mind that it cannot express (more on this below).
The jump starts well: within two minutes the Angel reports being in a “crater of viscera” from all the primitives it has maimed and killed and notes in passing the high fatality rate of its own unit, in addition to the “odd” circumstance that Machinist Clayton is somehow still alive. Then something goes wrong. The unit is attacked by “silverfish … a bio designed object that consumes polyferrous and conductive plastic-based material.” Not only do the “technovore” silverfish devour the cybernetic materials alloyed to Angels’ biological wetware, but they also grow and multiply rapidly as they feed, making them more or less unstoppable, “the scariest wetwork on the planet.” They summarily consume and capture the Angel and bring it back to the underground bunker of Dr. Huey S. Beagle, Lead Codeswitcher of Wetworx Industries, original inventor of Angels and silverfish alike, and one of the alter egos that Elegba explicitly names in the prologue.
The Angel awakens but is “webblind” and cannot “spool” while Beagle regenerates its biological body with stem cell therapies in a bath of synthetic amniotic fluid, and the two discuss the Angel’s origins, its consciousness and thoughts, and the state of the world, among other things. We learn that before becoming a cyborg the Angel was a woman named Roberta Nansi, that “the apocalypse happened and no one noticed,” and that Roberta is “an agent of that apocalypse.” The apocalypse in question is, of course, reflected in the violent and dehumanizing social conditions under corporatocracy during the Profit Wars, but also in the cataclysmic culturo-linguistic shift that those conditions either necessitated or occasioned: “Simply put, the apocalypse happened when humans saw fit to end metaphor and use euphemism in its place.” Like Orwell’s 1984, where newspeak and doublethink curtail language and thought in the service of totalitarianism, Silverfish explores the consequences for language, thought, and society at large when our utterances are reduced to “solely informational transactions” with exchange value.
In this scenario, which occurred in the novel’s past, human communication was stripped of its richness and vitality, and “the capacity for nuance, for linguistic fungibility” was lost. So too with human understanding: “The apocalypse did happen, but there were few around who had the means to recognize it for what it was.” Our minds reduced and fettered in this way, the apocalyptic “absence of metaphor” resulted in “an absence of the chance to make alterations or substitutions, new patterns.” And without this capacity, the capacity to envision and articulate unforeseen combinations and possibilities, we likewise lost the ability to resist or reform our world.
Hence the urgency for Beagle to restore Roberta’s language in the narrative’s present, not as a pre-programmed code by which the Angel could be commanded and controlled, but rather as what Beagle calls “langaj” or “langay”—pure language, which is “something that one can learn” without anything “to be immediately gained from it.” Fortuitously, Beagle glimpsed the possibility of the cultural and linguistic change that in fact came to pass, and, when creating the Angel several years before, embedded langaj deep within its base code as a hedge against just such an emergency. Traces of the Angel’s capacity for langaj have already been apparent to readers throughout the work, however, in the record of private thoughts that it could not express. These mainly take the form of short citations or textual allusions to other works of literature, music, philosophy, and so on (there is a partial list of references in the epilogue), which briefly interrupt the narrative in order to reinforce, extend, elaborate, or subvert it at various moments. Beagle calls this the Angel’s “doubled consciousness,” which allows her to “complete tasks and focus on them” while “thinking of something else at the same time.” It also allows her to be “multi-referential in a way that very few understand, let alone come to appreciate and know.”
Of course, the Angel’s “doubled consciousness” is also an explicit reference to W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of “double-consciousness,” which he defines in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) as the inner conflict of being Black and American. Langaj, moreover, is not just the bud of pure language seeded deep within the Angel’s intellect, but also the ritualized speech of Haitian Vodou ceremonies, which begin by invoking Elegba (“Papa Lebga, Ouvri barrie”). The Angel's former name, Roberta Nansi, is also a cryptogram for Anansi, an Akan trickster god of stories and knowledge, celebrated for his cleverness and intellect. The multi-referential citations within the Angel’s thoughts not only function very much like samples in a hip hop track, but also summon such luminaries as Ralph Ellison, George Clinton, James Brown, Kamau Brathwaite, Jamaica Kincaid, De La Soul, Percival Everett, Public Enemy, Bob Marley, and Prince Jazzbo (among many others in a diverse and eclectic assemblage) to add to the proceedings. When Beagle restores language and self-awareness to the Angel, then, a long and rich tradition of African folklore, religion, and story-telling as well as the works of Afro-Caribbean and African American poets, musicians, and prose writers emerge along with them.
While Beagle is rebooting this virtual canon of African diasporic artists and intellectuals within Roberta Angel’s consciousness, Machinist Clayton is on a mission with another unit to retrieve her. They succeed; Clayton survives again and is immediately promoted to sergeant. But since the Angel returns badly damaged, Clayton is designated a “loss-leader” and suffers an overall decline in his “profit-making potential.” He is advised not to exercise any of his options due to recent economic events and is ordered to speak with a financial planner about the number of additional, probably fatal jumps he’ll need to take to improve the outlook of his portfolio. Until that meeting, the Angel is placed in Clayton’s diagnostic care, during which time she embarks upon her “new mission,” one of her own choosing, which is “to speak to those who know no better than what they have been taught or told.”
Such is Clayton, a disposable pawn in corporatocracy’s geopolitical game of global domination. In that game, “Clayton has already lost. His role in the game is to lose.” More colloquially put, his “black ass” is trapped. He risks his life on dangerous missions against primitives with the hopes of earning a raise or advancing to a higher pay grade. But his superior officers and financial planners just give him the runaround, they dissuade him from exercising his options while assuring him that signing up for ever more jumps is the best strategy for his fiscal health and wellbeing. Worse still, Clayton has internalized the self-defeating tenets of the corporatocratic worldview, which insist upon bettering the present through the never-ending pursuit of profit and wealth. As he says, “income-negative and revenue-neutral people aren’t civilized members of society,” and so Clayton, like all the other combat associates, continually puts his own life on the line and takes the lives of others to remain “income-positive” and “civilized.”
The Angel’s new mission is to help Clayton (and those like him) see that the game is rigged, that “social stock options are a method of forcing you to make short-term decisions that are detrimental to your long-term survival.” Clayton somehow already knows this, but he doesn’t see how it can be any other way. The Angel does, but first Clayton must change his approach—he must first see the game as a game and then he must “play to win.” Winning, in this sense, means that Clayton’s “long-term outlook will guarantee” his life, rather than his death, “with only short-term risk.” The way for him to break the cycle he’s caught in, to stop being “serviced” by those with higher pay grades and social standings, is to put all of his income, assets, credits, and options into “language acquisition.” Language acquisition is “pay grade restricted” and ostensibly prohibited to someone of Clayton’s status, but the Angel has discovered a loophole, “one of the secrets of the game,” with which to subvert the game itself: “You have amassed enough options and credits to take a position in language acquisition, but only if you do it without first asking to do it.”
Clayton must take initiative, exercise his own agency, and make a choice. If he opts for language acquisition, the pay grade penalty will cost him everything he has and he’ll become a “revenue-neutral citizen … a deficit to civilization … as bad as a primitive.” What the Angel is also trying to get Clayton to grasp, however, is that the word “civilized” is loaded, too—it’s “a catch-all … used to indicate the ideological correctness of the corporatocracy”—and that being a primitive isn’t nearly as bad as he has been led to believe. From the perspective of incorporated nation-states, which are themselves “heavily congested, heavily industrialized environments,” primitives tend to live in territories that are “hot, unordered, and unclean” and are considered “backwards, lazy,” and “guilty of sloth.” According to Beagle, however, who was living in a primitive territory when the Angel was sent to extract him in the first mission, “they have done nothing wrong. They just want to fish and hunt, farm, raise families, to not necessarily contribute to the great global economy.” In fact, their main failing is living in “the few territories around the world” with “open fields and farms, mineral-rich or arable land,” which in turn makes them “targets of the various incorporated nation-states’ troops.”
The refusal of “prims” to exploit their territories through “contractual obligation or market necessity” may have “predetermined their outcome,” as the Angel asserts in the opening pages, but there are virtues to being a primitive, too. Chief among these is their linguistic virtue. Beagle, who has lived among primitives for years, speaks “in the primitive way, using abstraction, allusion, and signification.” This non-utilitarian, non-transactional language is the langaj that Beagle restores in Roberta Angel, and which she, in turn, encourages Clayton to pursue. Full of nuance, subtlety, irony, allusion, playfulness, metaphor, multi-referentiality, codeswitching, double-consciousness, and more, this is the language that connects Beagle, Angel, and Clayton directly to Elegba the god and story-teller, and to the primitives and their linguistic traditions. These are the traditions that have been jettisoned in the “civilized” shift from metaphor to euphemism and are continually endangered by the grasping might of the incorporated nation-states. But there is always more to the world—even dystopian worlds—than power, profit, and massacre. “There is a way out” of the corporatocratic nightmare, the Angel informs Clayton, and Shavers’s delightfully intricate debut suggests that learning, reclaiming, and embracing the languages and ways of life that were all but lost to Clayton may just save his life.