The wild ride of Jinwoo Chong's 'Flux'

  • by Laura Moreno
  • Tuesday July 4, 2023
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Author Jinwoo Chong
Author Jinwoo Chong

Jinwoo Chong's new futuristic debut novel is like no other book you've ever read. (Ling Ma's "Severance" may be, however, the closest thing.) Written in the tech thriller genre, it is a masterful example of what just may be the literature of the future.

In many ways the intricately constructed world of "Flux" unfolds more like a film than literature. Even though the novel grapples with dark issues, the sci-fi page-turner is delivered in the stylish packaging of pop culture. Call it "dystopian lite."

Given the labyrinthine plot structure, readers need to be prepared to remain alert to small clues in Chong's vividly descriptive prose that prove crucial to understanding this breathtakingly complex story. It's all there on the page, but there is a risk that inattentive readers may become confused.

Or at least this was the reason given for why the novel was rejected by publishers before it found a home with its prestigious publisher Melville House. Unbelievably, Jinwoo Chong said in an interview that he almost gave up on publishing "Flux," imagining the editors must be right.

The story intertwines the lives of the three main characters: Brandon, a gay young half-Korean man who at 28 has just lost his job; Blue, a 48-year-old key witness in a criminal case against a tech startup; and Bo, an eight-year-old boy who has just lost his mother in a tragic accident.

Right before Christmas, Brandon is laid off from his marketing job. Before he can even leave the building, Brandon literally steps right into a new job working for a shady company led by a mysterious character named Lev. Everyday Brandon gets up, has breakfast, goes to work, and then can't remember a single thing about his entire day. Nonetheless, his instincts remain sharp. He soon begins to suspect his new employer is using time travel to cover up a slew of violent crimes.

This is a world in which "structural inadequacy" has been normalized. Mind-blowing secret technologies enable constant sleights of hand under the radar. Everyone is being played and facts are regularly manipulated. The lucky few have good jobs in dying industries and are rewarded for figuring out how to fleece their customers. Everyone else is homeless, having been replaced by technology. It's a potentially civilization-ending future in which everything is in flux.

Grief, anguish, cruelty are everywhere, as are the absolutely ridiculous people that such a civilization gives rise to. Why, for example, does the workplace lobby have TV screens announcing the latest tragedy, "18 trains derailed during the blackout" as if it were useful or beneficial information to the workers? In fact, marketing fear to the public in this way only underscores the incompetence (or creative destruction? mere cruelty?) of the authorities.

"Flux" also contains glimpses into the medical tyranny currently taking shape, along with its extreme commercialization. Notably, implanted medical devices dissolve in three months, forcing patients to constantly pay through the nose for medical care.

Strikingly, Chong is unafraid to take risks, like including an imaginary main character. Brandon's imaginary constant companion is the ultra cool Asian star of a 1980s TV show called "Raider." Brandon's resourceful withdrawal into fantasy proves to be a highly effective coping strategy, as well as entertaining.

Unquestionably, "Flux" is a fun ride that will have you asking yourself, "What the hell just happened?" as it gives readers plenty to ponder.

Jinwoo Chong's 'Flux,' $21.50 Melville House Books

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