Early in March, Andrea Johnson of the Little Red Reviewer asked if I’d like to participate in a blog tour for Guy Hasson’s The Emoticon Generation. I’ve never participated in a blog tour, and the book does have a few stories involving young adults, so I said sure!
While I waited for the e-ARC, I checked out Hasson’s blog, where you can also read his serialized epic fairy tale novel, Tickling Butterflies — the hilarious story of John the Cute and his adventures in the Land of All Legends.
. . . . .
THE EMOTICON GENERATION
So, apparently I’ve been living under a rock, because I’ve never even heard of this thing until now. It’s called “Ping!” It’s like…texting? I think? Only you just use exclamation points and little moon-shaped symbols called Rogers. It’s supposed to be All The Rage among teens these days, and there’s even a movie about it, directed by Patrick Dempsey, and —
No, not really. You can stop Googling (all you’ll find is a golf equipment manufacturer and a Montana construction company) and we can all take a breath and not panic about The State of Youth Today. At least for two more minutes.
Because about two minutes from now is the setting for “Generation E: The Emoticon Generation,” the first of seven stories in Hasson’s collection.
And it’s definitely the mildest/least weird/least haunting one. In fact, on the first read-through, “Generation E” seemed an odd choice for an intro to the collection. Its tone was much lighter – humorous, even – than the rest of the stories, and the technology on which it focuses didn’t seem as surreal or life changing. It’s just close enough to what we already have (the narrator even mentions things like Twitter) that it seems like the events could be happening just two minutes from now.
[Side note: I actually kind of like the idea of emoticon poetry.]
But as I read the stories again, I realized each one actually builds on themes or concepts introduced in the previous stories. “Generation E” presents a seemingly simple, entirely believable situation that takes what we already have (LOL-speak, emoticons) and then asks, “What would happen if we took this just a step further? What if we offered people a way to communicate and relate to others with even less effort? What if we could get even more-instant gratification of our desire for attention?”
The next story, “Hatchling,” then jumps nine years ahead (I’m going by the original pub. date of “Generation E,” which is thus set in September 2010; “Hatchling” is set in 2019) and shows us an America with an even more broken sense of individual privacy, where people can stalk each another with PubliCams and online iSpy programs. And that’s not even the most disturbing development, or the focus of the story…
. . . . .
A FEW THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW
I do get that there’s a certain amount of suspension-of-disbelief necessary in these kinds of stories – they’re “What if?” scenarios (what if the government had a device that let them literally listen in on the past? What if you could download all of your memories into a supercomputer?). In such stories, the implications and consequences are more important than how each technology was created. It’s like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; you don’t know how exactly the doctor brought the monster to life. For the purposes of the story, you just have to assume that the science works.
Now, with Hasson’s stories, it’s not so much the technical/scientific questions you have to ignore, because he does offer detailed scientific explanations for some of his imagined programs or devices. Instead, you may find yourself with questions like, “Why would the government allow this program, with all its ethical problems? Wouldn’t there have been a public outcry?”
Those are the questions you need to set aside, because they’re not the point. Maybe there was a public outcry, maybe the government did hesitate to green-light the program…but that’s not the point. The point is: what would happen if this technology was available?
And for the most part, the stories work just fine that way. It’s just in “Hatchling” that I found myself having to not only suspend my disbelief, but also jump over a few plot holes. I’ll explain more in a bit (without giving any spoilers, of course).
More vexing than a few plot holes, however, was the number of proofreading errors throughout the collection. Some stories had only two or three, but others seemed to be filled with them, and for some readers, this might be a deal-breaker. For me, luckily, the stories were intriguing enough that I wanted to continue reading despite the occasional-to-frequent misused word or sudden tense shift. Still, as Susie and sj have noted in their respective Reading Rages®, proofreading errors really throw off a reader’s groove.
One more thing I should mention is the way these stories tend to portray women. If they’re brilliant, their brilliance is overshadowed by morally reprehensible actions at which the more noble male characters sadly shake their heads.
Or they cheat on their husbands or boyfriends.
Or they’re weak and indecisive about pursuing their dreams, and in need of a man to convince them to go for it.
Or they’re “adoring girls [who] will disappear as soon as they see another shiny object, like a new vampire movie.” 
. . . . .
Now, if you can overlook the above issues, the stories in The Emoticon Generation really are fascinating – both in terms of the situations/technologies Hasson imagines, and in the ways his characters use and react to them. “These are character driven stories,” says Andrea in in her own review, “and it’s nice to see characters who demand to know what’s happening and take steps to find out, instead of passively allowing things to happen to them.”
Below are the four stories that left the biggest impression on me.
It starts with a girl just trying to find out who her father is, and why her mother refuses to talk about him. About halfway through, I started to suspect what the real deal was, though that didn’t lessen the suspense. And it wasn’t just that I was waiting for Glynis to figure things out – there were still surprises to come.
On second read, though, I could see a few plot holes. Obviously, I can’t discuss all of them, but the one to which all of the others relate is this: how could it not occur to Glynis’ mom that a 21st-century pre-teen could easily search for information about her father, considering her frequent questions on the matter and her easy access to the Internet?
I can suspend any questions re: how the public would have allowed something like iSpy and PubliCams, but I can’t understand how an otherwise very intelligent adult would practically gift-wrap the keys to the secret she’s been keeping from her daughter for thirteen years.
All that said, this was one of the most haunting stories in the collection, ending on a note that left me with a dropped jaw and a sinking heart.
“Freedom Is Only a Step Away”
During the first read-through, I kept feeling like I was missing something. The technology actually seemed less surprising than that in “Generation E,” and yet the characters’ reactions to it were unbelievably extreme. Why would people be so shocked by the idea that a healthy imagination can make you feel freer and more happy, while a repressed imagination can make you feel metaphorically caged?
But then, maybe this society is the product of the linguistic advances in “Generation E” – maybe those Ping!-obsessed teens grew into adults who can now barely understand the simplest language. Which is why that one news anchor keeps asking his interviewee (the latter probably grew up without Ping!) to use “short sentences” and give “yes or no” answers.
[Side note #2: Speaking of linguistic advancements, see Hasson’s post on eight new words you’ll need to know next time you’re talking about death.]
As Andrea notes in her review, the anchors in general seem intent on “dumbing down” the information they’re given just for the sake of a “sexy” story.
And maybe that’s why the narrator keeps noting the stiff, Barbie-like appearance of each anchor’s hair – it’s a reflection of their stiff, simple minds. They act like they’re physically unable to think creatively…
“But imagining is hard,” Seuter insisted. “When I tried at home and not in your lab, my head started hurting.”
…let alone metaphorically or philosophically.
This one’s about a professor who is so full of himself, he’s not satisfied with being the smartest person in his lifetime. He wants to outshine anyone else who will ever live. And he finds a way to do that – a just-push-a-button easy way. Well, of course there’s a price, there’s always a price. But it doesn’t seem all that bad, because it’s not even real. It’s not. Except it is.
This story was a very different sort of creepy. There was no physical harm involved, but I would still get chills whenever the professor’s finger hovered over the button. And yet, at the same time, I wanted him to push the button; I wanted to see what would happen. And I felt guilty for it.
Aaand then the ending kind of threw off my groove. Let’s just say, so’s not to spoil anything, that one character ended up kind of a cartoon villain – just being spiteful for the sake of being spiteful – and another made a decision that didn’t fit with what (little) we knew about her. For the most part, Hasson’s characters are developed fully enough that their actions make sense, given their track record and personality. Not so with this person. And the reasons we are given for her choice are too vague – cliché, even – making the end seem a bit forced.
Still, next to “Hatchling,” this was the eeriest story in the collection.
This was the final story, and my overall favorite. It’s almost more about spiritual/supernatural forces (whether they exist) than about technology, though the technology is the means for exploring those forces.
There are things Tony knows to be true—knows, not believes He knows that he and his fiancée (also named Tony) were destined to meet. The universe had to have arranged itself so they would be in the exact right place at the exact right time.
And then a month before their wedding, she’s killed in a car accident. Now all Tony has left of his soul-mate is a digital copy of her state-of-mind in the last ten seconds of her life. And, ironically, those ten seconds seem to prove Tony’s arguments about fate…just not in the way he expected.
I was a bit confused by Hasson’s use of “tape” or “videocassette” to refer to the digital copy of female Tony’s mind… I also didn’t understand one character’s absolute refusal to consider male Tony’s explanation of what he saw in the video, in favor of even weirder and more complicated (at least to me) explanations. It’s like he was actively trying not to believe Tony — trying to force something spiritual, if you will, into mathematical terms that actually made less sense (again, at least to me).
But then, he’s not the only one, is he? Her Destiny takes place after all of the previous stories and their imagined technological advances. By the time the two Tony’s meet, their society has learned to see the human experience as something that can be literally translated into numbers on a computer screen.
. . . . .
The Emoticon Generation is part satirical, part speculative, sometimes humorous, and often spooky. It’s not a cookie-cutter lament against technology, or a cry for the return of life before the Internet – it’s just a look at what might happen if we push curiosity too far in certain directions.
If interested, you can sample four of the stories here, along with more of Hasson’s online fiction.
Previous stops on the Emoticon Generation blog tour:
- The Little Red Reviewer (April 2nd)
- Over the Effing Rainbow (April 4th and 5th)
- Dab of Darkness (April 6th)
- Attack of the Books (April 8th)
Here is the complete list of blogs participating in the tour.
 From “Generation E”