Here’s another fun Hollywood-centred novel to add to my recent reading, alongside Zeroville, Beautiful Ruins and Night Film. In a world just a few steps away from our own, cloning technology has advanced to the point that living, breathing humans can be crafted out of traits culled from a fictional work. Hollywood is eager to jump in on this innovation as it saves them having to think too hard about casting people for roles, and by the present day a significant portion of people living in Los Angeles are “Fictionals”. One of the fun things about this concept is that works that have fallen into the public domain are up for Fictional creation as much as they are for dissemination of the book, so for instance there are many Sherlock Holmes running around attempting to solve crimes.
Niles Golan is a hacky mystery/adventure writer living in L.A. who is contracted with updating an old ’60s spy film, The Delicious Mr. Doll, for a new release. One of the carrots dangled in front of him for this job is that his own creation, Kurt Power, will be made into a Fictional. This would be great for Golan, a depressed alcoholic who could use another friend, especially one who might just hold him in godlike awe. Golan’s only current friend is named Bob Benton, a Fictional created from the old (real-life) Black Terror comics from the 1940s for a mid-’90s TV show. (One of the most entertaining bits of the story is that in this universe, Black Terror is as popular as Batman is in our universe, so there are many variations of that character out there, campy ’60s version, ’90s update, overly serious 2000s reboot, etc…)
When Niles starts to dig in to the Mr. Doll adaptation, he soon finds out that the movie is itself adapted from a previous work, a rabbit hole which will eventually lead him on a merry, boozy chase through the lesser-known works of the Twentieth Century.
Al Ewing’s novel is a hilariously meta take on the search for authenticity and craftsmanship in modern day media, like Charlie Kaufman meeting Philip K. Dick in a bar and reading each other snippets from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Through the use of the Fictionals, Ewing is able to skewer arguments about Hollywood seeming to lack innovation and new ideas these days, reflecting instead on the fact that they never had any to begin with. It’s also a fun lens to look at certain quarters of the Internet’s obsession with the ideas of fictional characters, like fanfiction, “shipping” and the like. If you’ve never been privy to this sort of thing, try looking up Avengers villain “Loki” on tumblr and see what madness you find there.
One of the strangest features of the story is the idea that for a human to have a romantic relationship with a Fictional is the biggest taboo out there. I don’t know if Ewing quite nailed the Uncanny Valley feeling that meeting a Fictional must have on a human for this to work, as this never really made complete sense to me. Better, though, is the idea that racism against Fictional people is called “realism”, as in “they’re not real people so why should I treat them like it?” In a culture so increasingly virtual, so exceedingly segregated by what sort of media you choose to enjoy rather than, say, real experiences, to what extent is anybody “real” anyway? If you want to stick to the online communities, the identities that you feel most comfortable with, why not? The ontological crises raised by this concept really reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s work, with the growing sense of paranoia that characters are steeped in when they’re not quite sure as to what extent people around them are “real”, or they themselves are.
I also enjoyed the existence of a counterpart to the “no sleeping with Fictionals” taboo, a subset of people who’s favourite fetish is to be treated like they are Fictional, like they have no real agency in their lives whatsoever. This seems spot on with some sorts of kinky types, think of the way that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in the movie Secretary would rather have James Spader make the smallest decisions for her. It seems like something that must be happening now, somewhere, even without the existence of Fictionals to spur it on.
I would definitely recommend The Fictional Man to readers who enjoy the high concepts and identity questions raised by Philip K. Dick, the interrogation of fictional creations found in the work of Grant Morrison (especially Supergods and Flex Mentallo), or to people who liked the meta wackiness of films like Being John Malkovich or Adaptation.