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Tomorrow and Tomorrow

on Thu, 08/21/2014 - 00:00

Within the pages of Steel City native Thomas Sweterlitsch’s first novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow (Putnam, 2014), the city of Pittsburgh has been destroyed, the victim of a nuclear explosion set off by a lone terrorist ten years earlier. While the world has changed during the intervening decade—with society becoming obsessed with violent revenge for such actions—Pittsburgh itself continues to exist in a virtual world known as the Archive. Using video footage from traffic cameras, surveillance systems and even webcams from home computers, the Library of Congress has recreated the Steel City, up to and including the fateful moment of its destruction. The Archive serves as both homage and remembrance to those who died in the tragedy, a lasting record of a lost city and a way for survivors to cope with their own personal bereavement.

In many ways, Tomorrow and Tomorrow is hard to pin down in regards to genre. Science fiction immediately comes to mind, with a mid-Twenty First Century dystopian setting similar to the futures imagined by such classic sci-fi novelists as Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury. The novel also contains numerous ventures into the Archive, meanwhile, offering a realistic vision of Pittsburgh with chapters containing not even the slightest tint of science fiction. Then there is the main narrative itself, which revolves around the recent discovery of a murdered girl within the virtual reality of Pittsburgh—a previously unknown crime committed ten years earlier that the main protagonist of the novel becomes determined to solve—making Tomorrow and Tomorrow part detective story to go along with its many other ingredients.

The main protagonist is also the narrator of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and ultimately comes across as more anti-hero than actual hero. John Blaxton was in Ohio at the time of the explosion, but his pregnant wife was not so fortunate. Or maybe she was the fortunate one, as the death of his wife and unborn child has caused Blaxton to descend into his own personal hell of drugs and a continuous stream of virtual reality visits to his old apartment in order to lie in bed once again with his beloved Theresa. Even his current job as an archival assistant for a research firm plays to his obsession as he investigates deaths in the Archive on behalf of life insurance companies who refuse to pay without confirmation of cause. Logged into the virtual world, he follows his assigned victims up until the moment of impact, watching them then burn in the aftermath.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow begins with just such an assignment as State Farm has contested one of the deaths of a life insurance policy, a nineteen-year-old girl named Hannah Massey. She was reported “missing” prior to the explosion, and large chunks of video footage of her in the Archive have been deleted. John Blaxton may be a junkie obsessed with his dead wife, but he is also good at his job, and eventually finds Hannah’s body buried in the mud along a river bank. Convinced that she was murdered, he stalls when it comes time to file his official report, believing that no one else will pick up the reigns and uncover the truth surrounding her demise. Unfortunately Blaxton is subsequently fired from his job after he accidentally partakes in a small dose of heroin and is arrested for public nuisance and disturbing the peace. Even unemployed, however, his obsessive nature refuses to drop the investigation.

Hannah’s murder is only one piece of the puzzle, however, as John Blaxton is hired by the wealthy and politically powerful Thomas Waverly to find out what happened to his daughter as well. Albion Waverly died in Pittsburgh, but her images have suddenly been erased from the Archive, and Blaxton is tasked with discovering who has deleted her records. Yet again he proves good at his job, but when he comes up against the culprit within the virtual landscape of the once Steel City, he is threatened with the deletion of his own dead wife Theresa if he does not end his investigation. When Waverly is informed of this, meanwhile, he makes his own threats against Blaxton, and as connections between both Hannah’s murder and the missing video footage of Albion become apparent, John Blaxton is forced to go on the run without knowing which of his two enemies can be trusted and which is truly out to destroy him.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow thus takes place in two separate worlds. The first is the real world of the mid-Twenty First Century, and is reminiscent of the film version of science fiction author Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report. Adware can be surgically implanted into one’s brain within Tomorrow and Tomorrow, not only enabling instant access to the World Wide Web but streams of advertisements regarding anything that anyone looks at or is even slightly interested in. A fascination with both sex and violence is also prevalent within the social structures of Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and social media has reached the point where personal privacy has been virtually eliminated. When the mutilated body of a rape victim is found, for instance, the news reports quickly shift from facts to photos of the victim lifted from her Facebook page and sex videos that were not meant for public consumption.

While this real world is both futuristic and dystopian in almost every aspect, the virtual reality of Pittsburgh is more readily recognizable. Large sections of Tomorrow and Tomorrow are set in the Archives, and one can quickly forget that the novel is considered “science fiction” when reading them. Author Thomas Sweterlitsch vividly brings the Steel City to life as John Blaxton travels from the South Side to Oakland, Polish Hill to Lawrenceville, Squirrel Hill to Shadyside, searching for not only the truth regarding Hannah Massey and Albion Waverly but reliving happier moments that are long gone as well. While these scenes bring the region to life for those unfamiliar with Pittsburgh, anyone who has ever spent a significant amount of time in the Steel City will no doubt find something familiar and relatable within the pages of Tomorrow and Tomorrow.

“The driver takes us along Carson and several of us disembark to walk among the lights and people, to remember what it felt like to be on the South Side on a Saturday night,” John Blaxton explains of a bus ride that he and other visitors to the Archive have taken. “There are more people in the Archive than usual today, because of the ten year anniversary—survivors enveloping themselves in these memories. The bars teem with faces basking in the bluish glow of a Steelers game on the flat screens. Reruns, but they can still cheer as if the games were new, as if they didn’t already know who lost. The crowds are thick on Carson, just as they had once been, but I stay on board the bus to look at the streets scrolling past, to see the places I’d known, places I could walk into and still see everyone I once knew as if nothing had happened, as if they were still alive, still here. Nakama, Piper’s Pub, Fat Head’s. Near 17th the bus stops and more people climb on. Real people, other survivors. We look at one another, wondering.”

Despite having destroyed Pittsburgh in an act of terrorism, author Thomas Sweterlitsch has also painted a “love letter” to the Steel City within Tomorrow and Tomorrow, filling the pages of the novel with similar reminiscences that hundred-of-thousands of Pittsburgh natives have themselves experienced. The Pittsburgh of the Archives likewise stands in direct contrast with the realities of the mid-Twenty First Century, a happier place despite the death and destruction that surrounds it. John Blaxton may have an unhealthy obsession with the Archives, but compared to the dystopian world that he actually lives in, it is hard to blame him for his refusal to let go and desire to retreat into an alternative world that no longer exists.

Pittsburgh may have been violently eradicated ten years earlier, but the city still stands as a stark reminder that the future is not always better than the past—especially in the world of Tomorrow and Tomorrow.

Anthony Letizia

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