Will The Hills lead us to the apocalypse? In Lee Konstantinou's Pop Apocalypse, we can watch anyone, anytime, and celebrity worship has infiltrated every aspect of our culture. It may just be the end of the world.
Pop Apocalypse shares some kinship in its ideas with Dani and Eytan Kollin's The Unincorporated Man and Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. But the cultural phenomenon it most clearly evokes is The Hills. Yes, the quasi-reality show in which vapid twenty-somethings gallivant through Los Angeles. But it's not that Konstantinou is celebrating all things bleach blond and Hollywood. Quite the contrary, he sets forth the frightening proposition that The Hills might be our future.
Eliot R. Vanderthorpe Jr. is our Lauren Conrad. A failed academic (he never did finish his applied philosophy thesis on Elvis impersonators), Vanderthorpe is also a minor, sometimes unwilling, celebrity. Eliot's billionaire father, Eliot Sr., developed Omni, an advanced human recognition software that can identify any human on Earth from any photo or video. While being able to spot suspected terrorists and fugitives from the law is all well and good, most people use Omni as part of the celebrity machine. With tabloids and news outlets paying big bucks for celebrity footage, soon everyone becomes a member of the paparazzi, filming everyone and everything all the time in hopes of a big payoff. And, in a world where everyone's every move is being recorded, anyone can end up a celebrity.
This new celebrity culture has two drastic results. First, a person's name and reputation become a commodity, a thing that can be bought and sold. Depending on one's popularity and recent actions, footage of them can fetch a certain price from media outlets. It's sort of like a cynical, hypercapitalistic form of whuffie. At the same time, individuals can decide to "go public," selling shares of their reputation on a special stock exchange. Shareholders even get a vote in the workings of the reputation they own. This suits the evangelical Eliot Sr. quite nicely, as he all but analogizes the invisible hand of the free market with the invisible hand of God.
The second result is that celebrity culture has overrun every aspect of modern life. Cultural studies has become a popular major at universities, not to scrutinize the effect of pop culture on our society, but so they can become reputation managers and sell coming-of-age shows to Disney. Entire academic conferences are devoted to celebrities like Eliot, and scholars write papers analyzing his decision to change his major or cheat on his girlfriend. The Middle East is largely ruled by a pop singer, and whether his lyrics could be construed as a denial of the Holocaust could determine whether war breaks out with Israel. The world is rapidly falling into decay — rioting, terrorism — and there is excited talk among evangelical Christians that the apocalypse is coming.
Pop Apocalypse is at its best when it explores how Omni and this new celebrity culture has affected daily life in America. Eliot Jr., just returned as the prodigal son after a period of mindless debauchery, tries to navigate his celebrity status while maintaining something of a private life. The Hills isn't reality, and neither is Eliot's public face. His clothes, his personal wit and wisdom, his questions to adoring inflight magazines, all are carefully maintained and scripted by the family reputation manger, named (what else?) Karl. At the same, he's forced to make genuine, heartfelt statements to his on-and-off girlfriend in front of the cameras, and his every stumble and faux-pas is analyzed by hundreds of armchair scholars. It's all complicated enough before Eliot discovers he has a doppelganger, one the Omni mistakes for him.
The looming apocalypse, on the other hand, feels more like a gimmick, something to make you pick up the book and read a much more interesting story about surveillance technology and celebrity culture run amok. Konstantinou tries valiantly to connect his multithreaded satires. He proposes that we're so desensitized, so relentlessly marketed to, that when the apocalypse comes, we'll be talking about its strength as a brand identity instead of trying to save the world. But his geopolitical ideas aren't as detailed as his technological and cultural ones, and never quite gel.
The book certainly belongs to the family of zany, self-consciously hip books that have come out in the last decade or so, which is fine since Konstantinou has plenty of interesting ideas to convey. But he does take a few swipes at some low-hanging fruit. His Christian capitalists are a bit cartoony, San Francisco hasn't changed except that its stubborn, collectivist hipsters are getting older, and Disney has put out a feel-good musical called The Mongol Hordes. Sometimes, it feels like the book needs a few good shoves into more ludicrous territory to get away with its own jokes.
But Pop Apocalypse is a genuinely frightening book, not for its apocalyptic prophesies, but for its peek five minutes into the future. It's suggestion that photo-tagging software could someday turn all of existence into the ultimate reality television show isn't far-fetched in the least. One character comments that when you see how sausage gets made, you'll want to become a vegetarian. And in Pop Apocalypse, we're the sausage, and the whole world sees how we're being made all the time.