Thomas Pynchon, Computer History, and the Power of Prediction

Inherent Vice comes out today, in selected theaters across even more selected cities, in anticipation of a nationwide opening in early January. It’s the first ever adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, which makes sense, given his digressions, discursions, habit of meandering through time, and that one of the main strengths of his novels is the rumbling train of his sentences, barreling their way toward unexpected, terrifying, bawdy, and often beautiful destinations. If anyone was up for it, though, it was Paul Thomas Anderson, director of There Will Be Blood and Magnolia, among others. Early reviews are positive.

On the surface, this has little to do with the history of technology, which is the point of this blog. However, there are few writers as concerned with technology and the impact it has on our lives more than Thomas Pynchon. He isn’t a sci-fi writer in any traditional sense, but he is someone with a keen eye on the currents that lay beneath technological and electronic obsessions, and from the beginning he could sense something brewing in that hazy California past. Indeed, a careful reading of his books shows someone who has always been in tune with the role that technology plays in our society. We can see a history and predictive current running through his works, which reflects on us. In honor of Inherent Vice, let’s take a look.

Inherent Vice
A lot comes from a novel by Thomas Pynchon, even a history of technology. Image from

Mason & Dixon

We’re not going to go in order of books written, (nor will we look at every book) but in order of their historical chronology. Mason & Dixon was Pynchon’s first book after a long period, and it covered the lives of Mason and Dixon, famous for their eponymous line that divided and delineated America. It is a tale of science, of Enlightenment, of America, of slavery, and of lines that shape our very selves. One of the side characters was a talking, flying, mechanical duck. Now, the Mechanical Duck, as its name demanded capital letters, was the avatar of technology. It seemingly had free will, was an object of wonder wherever it went, and was possessed with a seeming malevolence, a violent streak, that made one wonder if its creator was a madman, or merely had no idea what it had unleashed. Like much of what Pynchon writes, the duck went from a fun oddity to a horrifying vision of technology gone wrong. It isn’t a stretch to say that though it quacked like a duck, and walked like a duck, it wasn’t just a duck.

Against the Day

Against the Day was not very well-reviewed, and I think unfairly. I consider it a masterpiece, a brilliant look at the hideous turmoil that led to what Robert Conquest called, fairly, a ravaged century. It jumps from the 1880s until after WWI, when society began to reflect our modern version. One of the great inventions was the movie camera, and one of the characters finds friends in still-dusty California who are playing with these toys that will transform entertainment forever. In a Pynchonian twist, one of the cameras could show a real-time movie of a person if the camera was pointed at their picture. On the screen, the man looked at his daughter, living her distant life. It’s sad and beautiful, and it shows the strangeness of social media, where we can know everything, but still be distant and removed.

Inherent Vice

I don’t know if this made it to the big screen, but Doc Sportello, the detective who is the story’s hero, runs into and gets help from some science geeks who use an early, semi-private version of ARPANET, the government prototype of the internet. As this excellent review in The Awl of a later novel describes it, “These are seemingly throwaway characters, just a few minor notes in the typical Pynchonian symphony of bizarre names and tangled plot strands and sinister conspiracies. But they are more than that. They are the prophets of our modern world, where everything is connected, and where not only can anyone with the right access track everyone else, but a huge majority of us give up our rights not to be tracked for the sake of convenience.”

Bleeding Edge/Crying of Lot 49

I’ll admit this is breaking the rules; Crying of Lot 49 came out decades before 2013’s Bleeding Edge. But there is a thread that runs through them. 49 takes place in California in the mid 1960s, when the culture is really beginning to change, and Bleeding Edge in New York during the Dotcom boom, right before the horror of September 11th (see the above-linked review for a more in-depth discussion). In both, though, there is a technological underground, trying to escape from the mainstream. In 49, they are merely an underground mail company, delivering messages to each other away from the government, and from the huge aerospace company that employed many of them. In Bleeding Edge, it was virtual, a level of VR and interactive games that blurred the line between avatar and reality. A deep internet.

The “deep internet,” like the deep state or a deep mail service, are all in part Pynchon’s way of demonstrating the world underneath our feet, the one that we feel but never see, some subtle seismic event that leaves us shaken without knowing why. He uses technology and the cool, fascinating history of technologyto do so. Pynchon is one of the few authors of his time (which has mercifully stretched into ours) that fully understood the implications, for good and ill, of technology. In writing the history of our times, he has written the history of our toys.

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