I’m interested in the limitations we have as a species,” Mat Johnson says of his fifth novel, the astute allegory Invisible Things. “The way we deal with race is not unique to race. The way we deal with things like environmental catastrophe is not unique to that. Errors in our code end up becoming exacerbated over time.”
Like Pym and Loving Day, Johnson’s earlier novels, Invisible Things is intellectually sharp, yet also tender. It displaces readers from the familiar, traveling into the future to confront the absurdity of our politics. The opening scenes are told from the point of view of a Blindian sociologist studying the group dynamics of astronauts on a cryoship. The ship is pulled to New Roanoke, an autocratic city on a moon of Jupiter populated by humans who believe they have been kidnapped by aliens and their descendants born in captivity. There, the crew’s leader aligns with the oppressor class. A resistance party struggles with infighting and strives for purity.
Johnson—a professor and comic book author and television writer, as well as a novelist—has a deep passion for storytelling fused with serious, occasionally irreverent, social observations. While Invisible Things sounds an alarm about the human condition, he also jokes that it’s no good to be a prophet. “You don’t want to be the one person who starts clapping a half a beat early,” he insists.
Where did the idea for New Roanoke come from?
Originally, I wanted to get to the moon and see what would happen. Then the invisible things came up. I didn’t plan that at all. I started to realize that not talking about the invisible things was the biggest thing that was happening. The problem was living in a historical moment that is beyond satire.
In satire, you have to push things to the point of absurdity. By showing the absurdity, you critique the original concept. The Trump era—the modern GOP in America—is beyond satire. If you reproduce that, it’s impossible to get far enough away from reality that you can see further levels of absurdity.
In your book, the invisible things serve as a metaphor for the power dynamics and structural issues under the surface that we can’t quite articulate, since calling attention to them is stigmatized and taboo.
Most people who read the book say, This is an interesting way of talking about what happened with Black Lives Matter, what happened with COVID, and turning that into metaphor. But it was written before all those things took place, in 2018. There’s a simple pattern we’re repeating, and the pattern is not logical. It’s also self-destructive. How are we doing this again, and again, and again? Our attachments to our belief systems are more important than reality.
One thing that scares me as I think about America is that it’s a creation, in part, from a genocide, a land grab, that was then boosted economically by mass generational enslavement. When you contrast that with how we envision ourselves—land of the free, home of the brave—it’s in direct contradiction to the reality of how the country was born. As the only major society in the world formed from an idea, having that idea be, at its source, hypocritical and false…I feel like it’s catching up to us. We’ve created a society where the wealthy have decided they control reality. What they believe is what’s true, and what they don’t want to believe is not.
You reframe the connection to power as caste. I’ve noticed this in your other books, but here it feels like an apotheosis, since the novel is so clearly allegorical.
For Pym and for Loving Day, race was the essential algorithm. When you’re dealing with race in literature, there are always preconceived notions about what you can do and what you can’t do and what you should be doing. With Pym, for me, it was like a knuckleball. It was wild, it was all over the place. That rigidity, the way we think about race, the dichotomy of black and white, allowed it to be even crazier because the reader can hold on to a simple, if completely false, notion about racial reality. Race ends up being this thing because it’s so big and powerful. In this novel, race is there, but not an overpowering taste, and that’s why the other things pop out more.
Do you think your refusal of hard-line classifications—the cross-genre aspect of your fiction—is bound up with your biracial identity?
When I lived in Texas, the people who wanted to conserve the existing order because they benefited from it took the ways of government for granted and chose to disregard everything that government did at the expense of other people. When you talk about conservatism of aesthetic in literature, I find the same thing. If I lived in a world where everybody was a mixed-race, middle- or working-middle-class person, and people like me ran everything, I would think realism was fine: Why not talk about my specific thing because the entire society is set up for me?
The idea of wanting to play with genres—that’s normal. The people in power in our society are the ones who have a specific way of doing it. When you look at the history of storytelling, regardless of what culture you look at, most of it has not been realism. The head fuck is that they have all of us looking at it like they are normal and they are right, but the rest of us can’t stick to the music, and so we’re going off and doing these other things. Well, that’s creativity.
You’re exploring a sad power dynamic in this book, yet you somehow manage to make it funny.
I come from a couple of different traditions. The biggest one is African American. Second is the Irish American tradition. That’s some bleak shit. The comedy lets you bend, so you don’t break. Comedy is just my language.
From the Black perspective, the world didn’t change with the Black Lives Matter movement. The world caught up to reality. I had people asking me afterwards, How’s your work going to change after all this? What the hell are you talking about? This is where I’ve been the whole time. This is what we’ve been saying about the police force, about the justice system. The only difference is that everyone walking around with video cameras in their pocket has allowed us to capture reality, as opposed to propaganda and what we wish was true.•