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The BookBrowse Review

Published September 20, 2017

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Landscape with Invisible Hand
Landscape with Invisible Hand
by M.T. Anderson

Hardcover (12 Sep 2017), 160 pages.
Publisher: Candlewick Press
ISBN-13: 9780763687892
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

National Book Award winner M. T. Anderson returns to future Earth in a sharply wrought satire of art and truth in the midst of colonization.

When the vuvv first landed, it came as a surprise to aspiring artist Adam and the rest of planet Earth - but not necessarily an unwelcome one. Can it really be called an invasion when the vuvv generously offered free advanced technology and cures for every illness imaginable? As it turns out, yes. With his parents' jobs replaced by alien tech and no money for food, clean water, or the vuvv's miraculous medicine, Adam and his girlfriend, Chloe, have to get creative to survive. And since the vuvv crave anything they deem "classic" Earth culture (doo-wop music, still-life paintings of fruit, true love), recording 1950s-style dates for the vuvv to watch in a pay-per-minute format seems like a brilliant idea. But it's hard for Adam and Chloe to sell true love when they hate each other more with every passing episode. Soon enough, Adam must decide how far he's willing to go - and what he's willing to sacrifice - to give the vuvv what they want.

A Small Town
Under the Stars

Under the stars, a small town prepares for night. It is almost eleven o'clock. Down in the boxy houses, people are settling in for bed. Car headlights crawl through the tiny streets. The bright streetlamps on the town's main drag illuminate empty parking. The businesses are closed for the day. The hills are dark.

All of this is seen by two teens up on some ledge, on a road called Lovers' Lane.

They're parked in a fifties fin car and "necking." She's in a tight sweater; he's in a Varsity jacket. The view over their town, the place they grew up, makes them sentimental, and they grind together over the gearshift. "Gee, Brenda," says the boy.

All of this is seen by the creature in the bushes.

Stems of some kind of terrestrial growth block his goggle-eyed vision. He sweeps the branches away with a claw. He observes the two hairy snacks writhing in their metal box and wonders what their mashing together could mean. His breath is loud. With an unsteady lunge, he moves forward. Branches snap. He is on the pavement. He is beside the car.

All of this is seen by hundreds of teens, watching in horror.

Boyfriends and girlfriends squeal and lean into each other. Couples grin. They're parked in fifties fin cars and "necking." The movie screen above the field of parked cars is refl ected in their windshields.

Of course, when the interstellar invasion came, it looked nothing like that.

A Small Town
at the Foot of theRendering Sails

There is no full night in our town because the rendering sails of the vuvv stretch high into the air and glow with a dull yellow light. My girlfriend Chloe and I are lying on the grass next to the school gym, watching the sails up in the sky ripple in some invisible electromagnetic tide.

Gazing upward together, we hold hands and I say, "It's so beautiful." I think for a minute and then say, "Like your hair. Blowing."

"Adam," she says, "that's a really nice thing to say."

"Yeah," I agree, and I tilt my head so it's leaning on her shoulder. "Gee, Chloe," I say, and turn to kiss her cheek.

As it happens, Chloe and I hate each other. Still, my head is next to hers, which I would gladly, at this point, twist off with my bare hands.

All of this is seen by hundreds of vuvv, paying per minute.

The Landing Site:
A Statue of Glass Pillars
in Wrigley Field,
Chicago, Illinois

I've never been to see the Vuvv First Landing Site. We all saw the landing on television when it happened, though, and for a school project in eighth grade I drew the monument that was built there on Wrigley Field. I used colored pencils and copied the picture off a cheap hologram bookmark. It was one of the first times I tried hard to draw clear glass. When I look at my drawing now, I can see a lot of the mistakes I made in getting the reflections and distortions right. The pillars look bent just because I didn't know how to do perspective well yet.

We were all surprised when the vuvv landed the first time. They'd been watching us since the 1940s, and we'd seen them occasionally, but we had all imagined them differently. They weren't slender and delicate, and they weren't humanoid at all. They looked more like granite coffee tables: squat, wide, and rocky. We were just glad they weren't invading. We couldn't believe our luck when they offered us their tech and invited us to be part of their Interspecies Co-Prosperity Alliance. They announced that they could end all work forever and cure all disease, so of course, the leaders of the world all rushed to sign up.

For a year or so after the first landing, one of their ships hovered above Wrigley Field to mark the spot where they first greeted us. Now the ship's gone, and there are luxury condos fl oating there instead. Everyone complains, because they block the sun, which was supposed to fall on the glass columns of the Vuvv First Landing Monument.

Full Excerpt

Landscape with Invisible Hand Copyright © 2017 by M.T. Anderson. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. The vuvv are unlike depictions of alien life in other books and popular media. How do their characteristics and impact on Earth highlight current concerns over the future of our planet and species?
  2. What makes the 1950s such an interesting period for the vuvv to be obsessed with? Why do you think M. T. Anderson chose that era?
  3. What does Adam's plight suggest to you about art in the face of hopelessness? Adam's art is a commentary on the state of humanity in his time, the poverty he's surrounded by, and the apathy of the vuvv. If only one or two others appreciate what he's trying to achieve, are his efforts still worthwhile?
  4. Why are the chapters titled as if they were paintings? How did that affect your reading of the text?
  5. Adam's mother looks at everything in terms of how likely it is to go her way. What does her constant use of percentages and odds reveal about how she sees her world? How is it different from Adam's vision?
  6. Compare the health-care crisis in the novel to the health-care discussions happening in America and around the globe today. As Adam notes about his chronic illness, "I've tried to get some kind of medicine to help with it — the vuvv can apparently solve this kind of thing in five minutes — but we have minimum insurance coverage. All the medicine in the world won't help if you don't own it" (page 52). How would Adam view the current state of health care in America and the battle over health-care bills in the U.S. Congress?
  7. Discuss the irony of the vuvv's fascination with and demand for "true love." How does their demand for it affect what they're getting?
  8. Similarly, when there's monetary compensation or compulsion for something, does that necessarily affect the sincerity of the results? Producing art for public consumption can be a business like anything else; what is the difference between consumers assigning value and creators assigning value?
  9. In the novel, the vuvv are the ones that assign value to goods and services and dictate the economy. What does that suggest to you about how arbitrarily something's worth is decided?
  10. The text doesn't gloss over the reality of living with a chronic illness like Adam's. He is constantly thinking of his health and how it affects his every move. Why do you think it's rare to read about the everyday aspects of something like Merrick's Disease, from the tedious to the unpleasant to the potentially life-threatening?
  11. the novel turn out as you expected? If not, how was it different? What did you think would happen with the art competition?
  12. Adam's art stands apart because he shows Earth since the vuvv invasion as it truly is, problems and all, instead of harkening back to a glorious pre-vuvv era. Is it easier to call for a return to some kind of imagined perfect past than to acknowledge how fractured society has become and how much work must be done to move toward a better future? Why might one outlook seem more appealing? How would you try to find a common ground with someone whose outlook opposes yours?
  13. Adam and Chloe end up making their own lives into a work of art online. What does this say about social media? What are the benefits of and problems with having our lives online?
  14. What does Landscape with Invisible Hand suggest about the experience of colonization? Are there real-world examples that the vuvv colonization of Earth reminds you of?
  15. How do you interpret the novel's ending? What impression do you think M. T. Anderson hopes to impart upon his readers?
  16. Landscape with Invisible Hand is a satire. How does that affect your reading and interpretation of it? Why do you think the author chose satire as the right means to unpack such questions about art, truth, and value?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Candlewick Press. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

National Book Award winner M. T. Anderson returns to future Earth in a sharply wrought satire of art and truth in the midst of colonization.

Print Article

Inequality, poverty, colonialism, and capitalism run amok would not necessarily be themes one would expect to encounter in a science fiction novel written for young adults. But leave it to National Book Award winner M. T. Anderson to write exactly that. Anderson never sells his audience short, and in works as varied as his 2002 breakout novel Feed (another futuristic novel with themes about communication and connection that seem almost eerily prescient now) and his multi-award-winning duology The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (an historical novel that explores thorny issues of race against the backdrop of the American Revolution), Anderson has never been afraid to tackle difficult or complex topics.

Anderson's Landscape with Invisible Hand might appear at first glance to be slight, even simple. At only around 150 pages, it is broken up into short chapters whose titles evoke still life paintings: "My House in Late Fall" or "Stuffed Animals in a Line." It turns out, though, that there's a lot to unpack from this slender suitcase. Its protagonist, Adam, is an aspiring artist (hence the chapter titles and vignette-like prose). And it also turns out that the still life genre is the only human visual art recognized and appreciated by humanity's new extraterrestrial colonizers, known as the vuvv.

The vuvv (who themselves look like bulky stone furniture and reproduce by spawning) have a distinctly superficial understanding of the humans they have colonized. They believe humans only paint "fruit in a bowl and stuff" and they adore so-called traditional human culture, which to them is epitomized by the saccharine doo-wop love songs and teen romantic comedies of the 1950s. So much do they idealize young human love, in fact, that Adam and his girlfriend Chloe have become their families' primary breadwinners by broadcasting to the vuvv pay-per-view, manufactured scenes of their romantic dates: "we baked snickerdoodles, or we just hung in a parking lot."

But there's trouble in paradise, at least off-camera; Adam and Chloe secretly can't stand one another. Chloe, in particular, has grown cruel to Adam, who chronically suffers from a horrific intestinal disease caused by the vuvvs' cost-saving measures that cut back on municipal water purification. But both families' economic prospects are growing worse – the vuvvs' promises of economic prosperity and ease have actually resulted in the near-collapse of the human economy – so what choice do Adam and Chloe have but to continue their lucrative charade?

Everyone in Adam's life is old enough to remember the vuvvs' initial invasion, to recall their overlords' promises of vuvv technical innovation "that would heal all disease and do all our work for us." But no one, least of all Adam and his family, can truly comprehend just how quickly and drastically ordinary life fell apart for average humans – the ones who weren't already super-wealthy and consequently able to invest in vuvv tech directly. The speed of this collapse is perhaps what makes Landscape with Invisible Hand most chilling – that and the complicity with which most humans initially viewed their colonizers. Certainly Anderson's novel is a work of speculative fiction, but that's because it prompts readers to ask their own questions about economic disparities, enforced inequality, ethnocentrism, and (just maybe) art's ability to shed a clearer light on all of these troubling issues, both in Adam's world and in our own.

Thanks in large part to its slender size, Landscape with Invisible Hand is a novel that lends itself to repeated readings, study, and discussion, as readers contemplate parallels between Adam's near-future and our own present time, asking themselves what can be done differently and what should be preserved at all costs.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

The New York Times
I don’t read J.K. Rowling — or M.T. Anderson, or Ursula K. Leguin — because of what their books have to tell me about life. I read them because these writers have mastered the ancient magic of storytelling, and because they remind me of what it’s like to be young, living in a world that seems both simple and incomprehensible.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Anderson takes issues of colonialism, ethnocentrism, inequality, and poverty and explodes them on a global, even galactic, scale. A remarkable exploration of economic and power structures in which virtually all of humanity winds up the losers. Ages 14–up.

Booklist
Starred Review. [An] elegant, biting, and hilarious social satire that will appeal to dissatisfied, worried readers of all ages.

School Library Journal
Starred Review. This sharp, compelling, slim volume packs a punch ... An engrossing, speculative look at life in the margins, this is a first purchase for libraries serving teens.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Resplendent with Anderson's trademark dry, sarcastic wit, this brief, complicated read serves as a scathing social commentary and, as the title indicates, an interrogation of free market economics.

The Horn Book
Starred Review. Anderson’s prose is almost hyper-lucid here—appropriately so, as the story is structured around Adam’s descriptions of his paintings. Practically every word reflects a prescient, bitingly precise critique of contemporary human folly, of economic and environmental inequities and absurdities.

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Adam Smith and his Wealth of Nations

Adam SmithThe title of M.T. Anderson's Landscape With Invisible Hand, (and perhaps its protagonist's name), contains a reference to the theories of the Scottish economist Adam Smith, whose landmark 1776 work The Wealth of Nations laid the groundwork for modern free-market economic theory. To laypeople, Smith may be best known for his concepts of the division of labor and its concomitant increase in productivity, as well as his contention that self-interest and competition result in the greater good for society.

This last point is part of what's implied in Smith's famous usage of the term "invisible hand," a metaphor meant to suggest that, in the absence of regulation, human economic self-interest will lead people to act in ways resulting in broader societal benefits than would a heavily regulated environment where choice is more limited. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith explains:

But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value. As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

Adam Smith's Wealth of NationsThe field of economics essentially didn't exist prior to Smith, and many economists in the centuries since his writings have argued about whether his notion of the invisible hand accurately reflects Smith's own feelings about economic regulation, and if it holds up as an economic principle that should guide regulation (or lack thereof) and decision-making. Regardless, the "invisible hand" is a concept and metaphor that persists many years after Smith's writings and will likely continue to shape how modern Americans think about economics and markets, even in a world that bears very little resemblance to the one Smith was analyzing.

Adam Smith, courtesy of www.adamsmith.org
First page of Wealth of Nations, 1776 London edition

By Norah Piehl

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