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Developing a Penchant for Pynchon

The bizarre novel on the impact of tech on society turns 50 this month

50 years ago this month, writer Thomas Pynchon published the 1973 National Book Award Winner Gravity’s Rainbow, a 700-page novel/biopic on the absurdity and technocratic madness of modern life. While I haven’t personally read the book, I now plan to this year after reading an entertaining memorial review of the book over at Wired. Pynchon was famous for being un-famous—that is, for evading the limelight while making an indelible mark on the unfolding postmodern literary landscape. Along with tomes like Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Pynchon’s book often seems devoid of a storyline with its cacophony of events, characters, and nebulous sub-plots.

An Almanac of its Time

But that might be kind of the point, according to this review from John Semley—the book is an “almanac” of its time, in which the so-called “meta-narratives” of religion and purpose were being supplanted by a deconstruction of knowledge, tradition, and virtue. It’s also a frightening and sobering reflection of our own era. A guiding image and metaphor in the book is the rocket, a symbol of man’s technological ambition to conquer and colonize the heavens. Semley writes,

But for Pynchon, the rocket was the pinnacle of science, human ingenuity, and the dream life of a whole species who fantasized about trekking through the stars, wrapped up in a weapon of death. Not only did the rocket breach Earth’s atmosphere and mark humanity’s first foray into outer space, it also transcended the piddly matters of ideology around which the 20th century ostensibly revolved.”

-John Semley, We’re All Living Under Gravity’s Rainbow | WIRED

A Vivid Reflection of Today’s World

While the space race with the Soviet Union was waning in Pynchon’s time, private corporations have jumped in to advance the cause of technological expansion and domination. Semley continues,

The hifalutin fantasies of space conquest and rocket mysticism have been taken up by multibillionaires like Jeff BezosRichard Branson, and Elon Musk. They have minted their own rocket cartels and framed their own schemes of earthbound exploitation around delusional dreams of conquering the stars.”

Add the transhumanist and artificial intelligence mania into the mix of multibillionaire moguls and you have the sort of wild world Pynchon prophesied.

The book is worth reading for Pynchon’s vivid imagination, Semley says, although you don’t really need to read a postmodern fever dream novel to get a sense of the absurdity and unbounded ambition of a technological age. We’re living in that kind of world every day, now.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is a prolific fiction writer and has written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is a contributing writer and editor for Mind Matters.

Developing a Penchant for Pynchon