by Mick Farren
Originally published in 1978 by Michael Dempsey/Big O publishing.
Revised version published June 1990 by Del Rey Books.
PLEASE NOTE: This review is based solely on the revised edition.
"Those who remain in the real world will be those who are able to accept reality for what it is."
Combined Media has got a future for you, my friend, if you can afford it. They call it Integrated Entertainment, or IE for short. IE is a mixture of life support system, and virtual reality via chemical/electrical stimulation of your central nervous system. You can seal yourself into a self-contained bed, have the IE techs run nutrient drips into your veins, put your respiratory and circulation systems in sync with life support apparatus, insert a cybernetic feedback array into your brain, and you're ready to techno-trip balls for the rest of your days. No more messy interactions with a world filled with crime, drug resistant disease, poverty, and people who will always be smarter, more beautiful, and more successful than you. Once you plug into IE you can be Billy the Kid, a paperback space pirate, the Marquis de Sade, or a Ku Klux Klansman-it's all doable. Nothing is forbidden. After all, it's inside your own head. As long as you got a triple AAA credit rating, you're good to go.
IE is the central technological commodity that powers a grim New York City in Mick Farren's The Feelies, a lean, insightful dystopian novel about the consequences of building a capitalist economy around a powerful form of escape from flesh and blood reality. IE, at first, is only for the super rich. Well, not really super rich, just those who have triple AAA credit ratings. The poor are left to fend for themselves by joining ultraviolent street gangs, or to work mindless jobs maintaining the IE infrastructure. The smart ones have signed up with the militarized police forces who have formed themselves into heavily armed and armored CRAC (City Combat and Riot) squads who love nothing better than busting civilian heads. If you can't be one of the ones born to wealth, status, and a guaranteed life of ease working in the upper echelons of corporate leadership then at least you don't have to be one of the little people. You can put on a uniform, grab a truncheon or an assault rifle, and lord it over the lowly shitizens.
Or, if you're ambitious, lucky and attractive enough, you can land a role on the Reality TV anticipating Wildest Dreams, a kind of R-rated Double Dare-style game show built around inane trivia games and sexually humiliating obstacle courses. The unwashed masses go nuts for the insta-celebrities who make it on to this show, often times mobbing the stars when they make publicity appearances or stalking them in their own neighborhoods.
More disturbing ideas float to the surface: all those cameras down at the subway station? Rumor has it that no one's watching the feed anymore. Even the pan-optic surveillance infrastructure is crumbling. No one is in control, even though everyone is fighting to maintain the illusion of control.
Farren's book alternates chapters following a handful of central characters, a selection of random citizens, samples from various IE fantasies, and the machinations of the corporate officers to give a fast-paced but comprehensive portrayal of Combined Media's infiltration and lockdown of human consciousness at the individual level. Two people emerge as significant point-of-view characters: Ralph, an alcoholic technician who services the IE beds, and Wanda-Jean, an underemployed pill popper who pursues her dreams of becoming a celebrity on Wildest Dreams. Neither of these characters are anti-corporate messiah material, nor are they meant to be. Farren's intention is to show how these two all-too-average beings respond to their growing awareness of the absolutely fucked nature of the world around themselves. Ralph and Wanda-Jean are both funny and grimly authentic.
Eventually, CM decides to offer IE at economy prices to draw in the masses. The implication is that only the most down and out and the super wealthy will remain outside of the VR fantasy trip. And then . . . a final showdown between the haves and the have-nots? Farren doesn't say. In the end, even the powers that be seem to be in thrall to the economic paradigm they've unleashed. No great visionary or rebel messiah shall emerge to save humanity from being enslaved by the New Corporate Predator State. It's a beast which cannot be defeated or satisfied. It can only self-destruct.