September 29, 2010
Othmer's The Futurist: A Lonely But Humorous Journey
I just finished reading The Futurist by James Othmer. Not a new novel, but like piles of others in my pending pile by the bed, it's been sitting there waiting to be devoured. Three flights and an hour in a hammock later, I'm through it - seems like it takes longer to conquer novels than it used to 5 years ago, due to the fact that my attention span seems to be shrinking thanks to the web and social media.
What an ironic book to read in the midst of this online evolution, especially given the fact that while its fiction, the character reminds me of several Web 2.0 illuminaries who do the speaking circuit and talk about the future, the exploding path of possibilities.
Most of all, the novel is humorous. The main character, Yates, spends his life making money and taking in praise and media horrahs addressing audiences around the world about future trends. He weaves in references to high profile technology, business and innovation events we are all aware of including TED, Davos and others. Tony Robbins also gets a plug during a stint he does in Fiji, where he watches a sacrificial dance a corporate executive organizes.
Yates once did a trust fall at an anarchists' convention and once, addressed the sales force of a failing dot.com and a rollicking Luddite symposium in the same week and received standing ovations at both. He once consulted for a firm that designed edgy logos and teen-centric merchandise for ficticious companies and once was paid five figures by an undisclosed government agency to go to Hawaii to play golf and brainstorm random acts of terrorism.
His rich, intellectual, successful and nymphomaniacal artist buddy Campbell loses the ability to cope in the real world so takes off for Greenland where he has sex with large busted blondes, combs the Internet and drinks a helluva lot of Vodka. He says in a weak moment to Yates, "What's weird is that our parents, my parents, sacrificed so much and worked so hard doing what they love so we could get an education and do what we love. Now that I think of it, it was almost evil, giving us that kind of freedom, mandating that we try to identify something that we love."
Yates loses himself as well, as he can no longer play the superficial game and spit out words that corporations and governments want to hear speech after speech. After a series of violent acts in Italy and South Africa, he turns to booze and speech language that he thinks is sure to end his career, yet it seems to have the opposite effect.
Soon, he is in more demand and yet, as the American Empire begins to fray around the edges, Yates existence does too. He goes around the world trying to identify why everyone hates "us." On his journey, he encounters a gay male model spy, a British corporate magnate with a taste for South Pacific sacrifice rituals and solitude from a hooker from Johannesburg who he sends money to so that she can join him on his daunting and fear-ridden escapades. He feels somehow that she provides perhaps the only truth and authenticity in his life.
Yates once stood in the White House Rose Garden flanked by Siegfried and Roy, Stephen Hawking, and the NCAA women's volleyball champs from USC.
By living a life of so many inconsistencies and so many lies, he no longer can believe in the present or future world or 'his existence', one that he has created. In the middle of all of it, his father dies, a man whose memory gives Yates a childhood view of the innocent and natural starlit sky. And so, he dares looks at it, even on other continents.
People die around him. His girlfriend leaves him. And, he gets threats from a fake Nostradamus character who turns out to be a fellow futurist colleague. Physical threats come from a secretive duo known as Johnson and Johnson, who have hired him to spit out even more lies in front of a camera crew and the media, only to be followed by locals in a Middle East country who are hired to kill him.
Throughout it all, he drinks vodka and whatever other strong poison is available to keep him going and believe in the lies for just a little while longer.
There was a time when Yates believed that science had a heart, that progress had a conscious, and that true art happened in the last synapse before epiphany....in the unstoppable momentum of an original idea. And for awhile, he could get others to believe this also -- because of him.
He once helped a record label create a lifelike digital synthespian version of an immensely talented female R&B singer who was deemed too fat for mass market consumption and whose subsequent debut DC went platinum. Once a very rich man paid him to moderate a focus group in which twelve people handled and discussed at length the very rich person's personal belongings while the man sat alone on the other side of a two-way mirror.
Yates makes it through the living lies to a point where he thinks, just maybe he can look at himself in the mirror and do something positive in the world again. As for giving back, his ego and narcissism took over too long ago for him to remember how to give back, however through a combination of humility, death, violence, near jail time in an Italian cell, his encounter with a hooker, a few thugs, government officials and his own internal crumbling, Othmer's Yates gives us humorous and yet thought provoking insights into life in the fast lane, a lane that is more often than not, a sad, lonely and spiritually empty one.
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