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occasional

Gun, with Occasional Music

Gun, with Occasional Music is a 1994 novel by Jonathan Lethem. It blends science fiction and hardboiled detective fiction. It was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1994.

Plot introduction

The novel follows the adventures of Conrad Metcalf, tough guy and wiseass, through a futuristic version of Oakland and Piedmont, California.

Plot summary

Metcalf is hired by a man who claims that he's being framed for the murder of a prominent urologist. Metcalf quickly discovers that nobody wants the case solved: not the victim's ex-wife, not the police, and certainly not the gun-toting kangaroo who works for the local mafia boss.

Characters

  • Conrad Metcalf – Hardboiled private "inquisitor"
  • Maynard Stanhunt – Doctor who is murdered before the novel begins; mentioned only
  • Orton Angwine – Man accused of murdering Maynard Stanhunt
  • Delia Limetree – Woman who switched sexual nerve endings with Metcalf; mentioned only
  • Theodore Twostrand – Scientist who invented evolution therapy; mentioned only
  • Celeste Stanhunt – Dr. Stanhunt's widow
  • Sasha – Kitten whose brain has been accelerated by evolution therapy, known as an "evolved" kitten
  • Grover Testafer – Doctor who shared a practice with Maynard Stanhunt
  • Morgenlander – An inquisitor for "The Office"
  • Kornfeld – An inquisitor for "The Office"
  • Shand – Human clerk at the Vistamont Hotel
  • Danny Phoneblum – A local gangster
  • Joey Castle – an evolved kangaroo (and thug) employed by Phoneblum
  • Pansy Greenleaf – Blanketrol- addicted woman with whom Celeste Stanhunt lives
  • Dulcie – An evolved ewe employed by Testafer. Later murdered.
  • Barry Greenleaf – An evolved child, otherwise known as a "baby-head"
  • Catherine Teleprompter – An inquisitor for "The Office"
  • Maker – Not a name, but a job title; scientist who makes "blends" at a makery
  • Cole Bayzwaite – Architect
  • Walter Surface – Private "inquisitor" and evolved ape.
  • Nancy – Surface's companion
  • Woofer – A baby-head
  • Tweeter – A baby-head
  • Overholt – Works for Phoneblum out of a bar called the Fickle Muse

Major themes

Lethem's future

Thanks to technology, children can become smarter and more cynical than adults; such children are known as baby-heads. Animals, too, can be given the intelligence of a human being through bioscientific techniques, a concept explored previously by David Brin in his Uplift novels and Roger Zelazny in Dream Master. Lethem's animals stand midway between these two; like Brin's, they have clearly delineated and delimited rights; like Zelazny's, however, they are part of a darker symbolism. "Baby-heads" have their own subculture and bars, and can drink alcohol, while it is not considered bestiality when one has a sexual relationship with an evolved animal in this world, and humans may also adopt younger evolved animals.

Lethem also envisions nerve-swapping technology. Couples trade erogenous zones for purposes of sexual experimentation. Metcalf previously underwent such a procedure, and is now trapped with a woman's neuro-sexual apparatus because his girlfriend skipped town with his male one.

There are other such incidental touches. For an unexplained reason, psychology is no longer viewed as a science, and psychologists behave like Jehovahs Witnesses, the Church of the Latter Day Saints and other itinerant proselytising religions. One such couple asks Metcalf if he'd like to listen to selections from Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. In this future, television is now an abstract art form, and has abandoned linear narrative sequence genres.

People are more sensitive in Lethem's future; asking questions is considered astonishingly rude, making private detectives (or "inquisitors", as they are known in this future world), whose job involves prying, social pariahs. Rather than broadcast bad news to squeamish listeners, the radio plays ominous music instead. (Handguns also come with threatening violin soundtracks.) And everyone is "on the make"--make being a snortable drug available in a dozen different blends (Acceptol, Avoidol, Forgettol) in stores called makeries. Unfortunately, substance abuse still exists in this future- there is a lucrative black market in blanketrol, an earlier version of forgettol and addictol, but highly addictive nevertheless. Pansy Greenleaf is initially addicted to it.

Karma is also subject to transactions through portable debit cards. Once someone's karma reaches zero, they are sentenced to specific periods of cryogenic respite until they 'work off' their karmic 'debt.' However, unscrupulous criminal elements in this society have developed "slaveboxes," neural implants which activate the inert central nervous systems of the sleepers, using their bodies for prostitution or slave labour while unconscious.

Metcalf undergoes this experience in the book. After six years, he is thawed out, only to find that memory retention has become a social taboo, and people now have prompters installed to provide retrospective commentary about past events in their lives. As a result, "makeries" only manufacture one standardised blend, with forgettol paramount. Private investigation is also illegal.

References in Popular Culture

Chicago hardcore punk band Gun, With Occasional Music is named after this book.

Release details

  • 1994, U.S., Harcourt, ISBN 0-15-136458-3, Pub date 1 March 1994, Hardcover
  • 1995, U.S., Tor, ISBN 0-312-85878-7, Pub date 1 March 1995, Paperback
  • 2003, U.S., Harvest, ISBN 0-15-602897-2, Pub date 1 September 2003, Paperback

Sources, references, external links, quotations

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