Review: “Forecast” by Shya Scanlon

Review by Tobias Carroll

Shya Scanlon
Flatmancrooked; 273 p.

It’s been a good year for encounters with emotional technology in weird fiction. Last fall, Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe gave the reader a time machine powered by sadness; now, Shya Scanlon’s Forecast predicts a future in which houses, cars, and civic centers will be powered by the aftereffects of strong emotions. That technology has a fairly strong thematic role in the novel — protagonist Helen is isolated from the rest of society by her inability to trigger any sort of reaction from it — but it also allows Scanlon room to create his own particular view of the future.

Specifically, a very cut-and-paste one. Via the narrator, a Citizen Surveillant named Maxwell Point, we learn that the current state of technology is a relatively recent one, and that, for an unspecified number of years, the world (or at least the US) was in a sort of forced pre-industrial state. Point is both narrator and character here: from a young age, he’s observed Helen; when she leaves her tepid marriage for a surreal journey through Seattle, Point begins to follow.

The setup of Forecast allows Scanlon to offer up a future that mirrors the concerns of our present. Most notable among these similarities is the role of surveillance, which includes both Point’s organization and the omnipresence of certain masks that can render one undetectable. Helen’s high school boyfriend Asseem holds a similar function — we learn relatively early in the novel that he’s parlayed a youth spent working across cultures and classes into a profitable consultancy focusing on street cred. But there’s also a self-referential aspect to this: the novel opens with Point explaining what, exactly, he does:

Most crudely, Citizen Surveillance is the act of gathering whatever data is available about a target…and using a brand of intuitive channeling to fill in whatever pieces are missing to recreate motivation, emotional response, and of course to predict behavior.

In other words, it’s the detective as novelist — or possibly the other way around. Scanlon skirts the edges of cleverness here: there are conspiracies within conspiracies that run through the novel, some of which involve Helen’s family; others involving Asseem; and still others, closer to home and more intimate in scope, involving Helen’s surreal suburban neighborhood and feckless meteorologist husband. Point shifts, over the course of the novel, from nominally objective narrator to a willing participant in the action.

There’s a lot going on here, and the full scope of Scanlon’s ambition is only clear once the novel has reached its conclusion. The intermingling of a series of relatively archetypal styles — the detective story, the dissection of a future society, the examination of suburban frustration — does help keep all three feeling relatively fresh. And for all that Forecast abounds with symbolism, Scanlon keeps his characters feeling human throughout. It’s a welcome choice, and also — given the omnipresence of technology here — a surprisingly organic one.