Worth reading 😎

In Guiseppe Porcaro's Disco Sour, a mundane plot and protagonist are overshadowed by a vibrant, rich, and blackly comic vision of a near future where electoral democracy is at risk.

Synopsis

A politician addicted to dating apps embarks on an existential odyssey to save democracy from being swiped away.

In the aftermath of a continental civil-war, nation-states have collapsed, the European Union™ holds on, preventing anarchy.

Bastian Balthazar Bux is a leading member of The Federation®, the European network of civil society and local governments. Bastian has just been unexpectedly dumped through an app, the BreakupShop™ service. Heavy hearted, he just wants to drink, get on with work and forget his romantic woes.

However, he discovers that Nathan Ziggy Zukowsky is planning to sell Plebiscitum®, a dating-style app that is meant to replace elections with a simple swipe, at the same conference he is invited to attend in Chile. Haunted by the ghosts of his recent relationship, he finds himself without his all-important Morph® phone, just a few hours before embarking on his trip to try to save democracy.

Will he make it to his conference on the other side of the world? Will he stop Zukowsky from selling his app? And will he ever find a way to deal with his breakup?

“Disco Sour is a hallucinatory trip through a future which feels just a phone-swipe away. There are notes of Pynchon, Stross, Heller and Stephenson here, but this is very much Porcaro's book. It's wildly inventive, scarily plausible, and it's also very, very funny.”

There’s a lot to like in Guiseppe Porcaro’s Disco Sour. Its world is engaging, complex, and blackly comic, and its characters are well drawn and convincing. Its bleak near-future, despite the comedic elements, may very well be prescient—we are, after all, beyond satire in 2018.

Strangely, it’s the sheer quantity of the subjects the book touches upon that is both the novella’s biggest strength and its main weakness. The novella—a heady kind of existential comedy-cum-romance-cum-political thriller—tells the tale of Bastian Balthazar Bux, a youngish member of the Federation (a European network of civil societies and local governments) who, having just been dumped by a cold-blooded boyfriend via a breakup app, is sent off to present the Federation’s newest scheme, the League of Young Voters, at a conference in Chile. Before he goes, he learns that Nathan Zukowsky, the alleged son of Roman Polanski, is travelling to the same conference to sell plebiscitum, a Tinder-esque app designed to replace traditional elections. The world Bastian inhabits is a light sci-fi vision of the near future: a European civil war has left traditional democracy hanging by a thread and present-day capitalism has progressed logically, with almost every proper noun copyrighted and every militia boasting its own corporate sponsors.

Within this rich setting, Disco Sour’s actual plot and its narrating protagonist seem rather flat. The majority of the drama is internal and is consigned to bars, train carriages, airplanes, and airports, and Bastian is mostly concerned with getting over his hangover, sorting out his travel plans, and thinking occasionally about his ex, Janine. Embedded within the moment-to-moment narrative are poorly integrated information dumps that explain the state of this new world. These sections paint a vivid, pleasingly cynical outer world that, disappointingly, feels rather detached. Corporate-sponsored militants fight student-led anarchists over the shattered remains of Europe, democracy is dangling above technocratic populism, and yet the plot we’re given is a hungover man trying to get to a conference. It doesn’t help that this conflict’s stakes are rather vague; the worst-case scenario of the main conflict seems to be that Nathan impresses the conference audience with his idea, while the best-case is that Bastian gets over his hangover, gets laid, and impresses with his League of Young Voters concept. Hardly riveting stuff, especially when this conflict is foregrounded in front of a much more engaging and promising backdrop.

Porcaro’s confusing decision to focus on the least interesting elements of the book is compounded by narration that is often too clever for its own good—Porcaro throws around similes that require technical or biological knowledge and then, not trusting his reader to understand, spends the following paragraph explaining his throwaway simile. This issue combines with the book’s plot issues to present an interesting question: are thematically appropriate but unengaging stylistic and narrative choices justified? After all, you could read Bastian’s self-involved narration as typical of an individual thrashing in the impossibly deep waters of a bureaucratic, technical age; likewise, you could read his mundane quest as reflective of the surreally flat lives many of us live in an age of ceaseless activity. However, while these links are technically smart, if they harm your story, are they worth it? In Disco Sour’s case, probably not.

Reviewed by

Fred Johnson is an English freelance writer and books editor living in Edinburgh, UK. He's worked for Standout Books, the Book Butchers, Kirkus Reviews, Birlinn, Oxford University Press, BubbleCow, and the Proofreading Company, and in his spare time he writes poetry, non-fiction, and short fiction.

Synopsis

A politician addicted to dating apps embarks on an existential odyssey to save democracy from being swiped away.

In the aftermath of a continental civil-war, nation-states have collapsed, the European Union™ holds on, preventing anarchy.

Bastian Balthazar Bux is a leading member of The Federation®, the European network of civil society and local governments. Bastian has just been unexpectedly dumped through an app, the BreakupShop™ service. Heavy hearted, he just wants to drink, get on with work and forget his romantic woes.

However, he discovers that Nathan Ziggy Zukowsky is planning to sell Plebiscitum®, a dating-style app that is meant to replace elections with a simple swipe, at the same conference he is invited to attend in Chile. Haunted by the ghosts of his recent relationship, he finds himself without his all-important Morph® phone, just a few hours before embarking on his trip to try to save democracy.

Will he make it to his conference on the other side of the world? Will he stop Zukowsky from selling his app? And will he ever find a way to deal with his breakup?

“Disco Sour is a hallucinatory trip through a future which feels just a phone-swipe away. There are notes of Pynchon, Stross, Heller and Stephenson here, but this is very much Porcaro's book. It's wildly inventive, scarily plausible, and it's also very, very funny.”

BREAKUPSHOP

I was dumped a few hours before the party. It was a straightforward break-up, one of those that leaves no doubt that it’s over forever. He bought a non-customised text message from the BreakupShop™, the Trojan® plan. It was the cheapest and meanest service they had, which at the time cost only around thirty xEUs, not even offering a personalised letter.

After I opened the message, I scrolled around my Morph®, and his number, along with all our tagged photos and his social media accounts, was instantly blocked or deleted. I had no way to reply to the message, which came from an untraceable number, and it informed me with cold, mechanical disinterest that I would be unable to contact him electronically ever again. I felt depressed, and I kept struggling with the straw in my gin and tonic. It had a vintage Greek flag on the top and was the kind of straw that keeps popping out of the glass because the air in it is lighter than the liquid. It was a major pain.
Another major pain was coming straight from my chest. Possibly from the hilus at the lung’s root, where the blood vessels and airways pass into it, like thousands of straws. The pain was slowly spreading all over and reaching the pleura. My left lung was glued to my chest wall. I felt like I was dying.
The straw popped out of the glass, ejected by the bubbles of carbonated tonic, and it almost fell as soon as I was not keeping it in my right hand. I didn’t want it to fall to the ground so I held onto it with my teeth, discreetly swapping the glass to my free hand. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I held on. The evening had just started, and yet the enormous tide of thoughts rising inside me was at odds with my duties.
My name is Bastian Balthazar Bux. At that time, I was the executive director of The Federation®, the platform representing the decentralised and not-for-profit structures all over the old continent. After the civil war, the European Union™ was left as the only entity with a grip on the rule of law over continental Europe. Local bodies, such as cities, regions and independent microstates, kept on making decisions on their own, and associations, youth organisations, trade associations, religious councils, workers’ leagues and the like were expanding their niche in politics. This was still very unregulated, and that is where The Federation® was playing a role, gathering those fragments together in the fragile and embryonic governance of the multitude.
It was a warm night in Lower Macedonia™, on the 29th of November, exactly two years after the armistice. We were near Thessaloniki’s waterfront, in a stone building saved from the big fire of 1917. The old house was now hosting the Rover Hangover bar. The venue had a fabricated feels-like-home atmosphere, with old wood and stone holding the structure together, and an eclectic decor with pinball machines, butchers’ tables and collectable pre-civil war posters. The delegates shouted around the three floors, drinking, gossiping and flirting.
‘Cheers. To new beginnings,’ my friend Lorenzo said. We’d known each other since before the civil war began. When the riots spread to set the rest of Europe on fire, people thought that the unrest against the financial crisis could be contained and would fade out quickly. But soon it became clear that the deployment of privately hired military contractors, combined with the lack of national armed forces, was not going to stop the violence. Lorenzo Poretti, then president of the Italian Young Volunteers’ Association, converted his organisation into a militia and became one of the commanders in chief whose numbers kept multiplying on the rebels’ field. Eventually, after intense fighting for two long years all over the continent, the various factions came to an agreement. Lorenzo then joined The Federation®, where he represented the Southern Italian delegation.
‘It’s the first time I’ve heard about the BreakupShop™. Frankly, I’m not impressed,’ I replied.
‘That’s the big new thing trending on all the social media sites. I even bought their services a couple of weeks ago to get rid of a girl I met on Snapchat®,’ he said.
‘Why would you use it? Couldn’t you tell her yourself?’
‘She proposed I meet her dad after our first date,’ he replied. And he wasn’t helping by telling me all this. I didn’t know how exactly to react to my new status. I had my own issues with break-ups.
‘Look, you fucked it up,’ he continued.
‘He sent me an automated bot message to break up with me,’ I said.
‘You fucked it up,’ he repeated.
I didn’t understand why he was saying that, and I thought, for a moment, it was the fault of the Bryan Adams song playing in the background, or the first two G&Ts I’d drunk since arriving. Or perhaps the break-up hangover itself.
‘The Fifteenth Amendment was passed in the new statutes,’ he said to change the subject. ‘It’s not what we agreed on.’
‘C’mon. Don’t bother me with that shit now. The General Assembly was a blast,’ I replied. ‘We made the structural changes. The president of the European Commission endorsed them. The Governor of Lower Macedonia™ gave us his general blessing with home-grown wine.’
I got even more bothered by the shitty, nostalgic, Greek-flagged straw, not to mention the taste of cheap gin in my mouth. On top of everything, Bryan Fucking Adams was still playing in the background ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It for You’ ℗1991 Bryan Adams, which was particularly annoying because it reminded me of a disastrous night at a friend’s place long ago. That song had been playing on repeat for three hours while some girls attempted to transcribe the words and a friend tried to find the chords on his guitar.
In the present, Lorenzo was saying, ‘You should have stepped into the discussion to explain it was not legal according to the European Fundamental Law to include three vice presidents, cazzo.’
I saw that coming. Typical Lorenzo. I loved him, but he enjoyed putting pressure on people out of the blue and far too much of it. He also loved to win small battles, thinking they were huge victories. But in doing so, he often set off time bombs that he wasn’t even aware of, which I usually had to deal with later.
‘We need more room for negotiation,’ he continued. ‘Things are getting much more sensitive now. The Federation® isn’t just a token any more. The Nordics want their spot. The Southern Alliance can’t be left out. Easterners are playing both sides,’ he said.
Bryan Fucking Adams stopped singing and, given the circumstances, I didn’t give a fuck if there were two vice presidents instead of three. We had just adopted statutory changes establishing regulations to fully execute the powers granted to The Federation® by Article Eleven of the European Fundamental Law. What might have looked like a bureaucratic measure on the surface actually allowed The Federation® to be part of all the decisions of the European Union™, transforming it into a sort of second chamber alongside the European Parliament. Whether or not its candidates would have an extra jockeying spot for an additional vice president to use for horse-trading at the next election was, to be honest, of no real concern to me.
I stabbed the straw to break up some ice cubes. ‘Listen, it’s not a matter of legislation. I have said everything I have to say about the legislation. Go and ask the board about it, if you really want to complain to someone. They are the ones who cared so much about proposing the Fifteenth Amendment, not me,’ I said.
My argument with Lorenzo wasn’t going anywhere, but I was getting better at using the straw, pushing away the surfacing images of curly black hair, the scent of the chlorinated pool and the smell of pine trees, yellow shoelaces and sweat.
Lorenzo cared too much about including three or four vice presidents in the statutes. It didn’t appear to be just pure, wicked pleasure. He must have been cooking up a plan behind the scenes for the next election.
I said, ‘Can’t you just enjoy yourself, for once?’ And I left.
*
I wished that the evening could have just been about gin and tonic. I wished I could have simply enjoyed the fizziness of the bubbles and the aftertaste of a fresh cucumber in the glass. But what I had in the glass was not cucumber. And it was not Hendrick’s®. It was hardly a piece of lemon and the Lower Macedonian gin was cheap, with a chemical aftertaste. I’d never heard of Lower Macedonian gin before and suspected it was a bathtub concoction developed during the war. Meanwhile, another one was being delivered to me. Again.
This time by Sandra, my deputy. She was one of the best on the team; not only smart and highly competent at what she did, she also had an acute political sensitivity.
‘Bastian, this is to celebrate us. Cheers.’ And she gave me a glass of the same stuff I was drinking before, so I smiled in fake appreciation. She could have bought me Hendrick’s®. Or Bombay Sapphire®, at least. I took a deep breath and clinked glasses.
‘How’s it going?’ I asked. ‘You look splendid.’
She had combined retro-glam sparkles, an open-cut back and fluid plissés with modern strict layering and a muted colour scheme. From Filippa K™, I guessed.
‘Thanks. It’s going okay,’ she replied, ‘especially after the last five G&Ts. You look splendid, too.’
‘Is that the drink, or do you really want to give me a compliment?’ I asked.
‘Ha. No, I really mean it. I also really loved your wooden tie earlier today,’ she said. ‘It was cool that you wore that during the General Assembly.’
And she started to dance. Not too obvious, just moving to the sound, keeping the conversational mode light. I had indeed worn a wooden tie during the Assembly, and she managed to improve my mood by praising the gesture. I used to be a great collector of ties, of all kinds and species. I had at least 350 of them. The wooden one was a gift from my ex-boyfriend for my last birthday. Wearing a wooden tie was not a revolutionary act but, for me, it meant we shouldn’t have been taking ourselves too seriously. By ourselves, I meant the Assembly, with its rituals of voting, changing statutes, the historical moment we lived in, and so on. But that afternoon seemed light years away.
‘We should be proud,’ I said, unconvincingly, moving my thoughts away from the tie and from my ex.
‘We should be what?’ she asked. The music was getting louder.
‘We should be proud of what we pulled off in the past couple of days,’ I repeated.
She nodded while continuing to kind-of-dance, and then she came closer again, this time whispering in my left ear. ‘But I want to warn you,’ she said, her breath smelling of the cheap gin, ‘we all know you mean well for us. However, the trade unions are really pissed off with what we had to cope with,’ she said, her speech slurring as the alcohol worked its way into her bloodstream.
So, the smile and the cheers were not totally celebratory or genuine. The Federation® had quite a strict trade union structure, and its employees were often prone to conflicts with the management.
‘You’re referring to the discussion we had about the Fifteenth Amendment to the statutes, I suppose,’ I told her. ‘Until midnight yesterday.’
‘Well, that was a painful discussion, but the new app AssemblyManager® made the operations much easier for the secretariat. We were just bored watching the live feed from the delegates on our Morphs®, while they were fighting over the number of vice presidents. That was ridiculous,’ she continued, ‘and seriously, I’m talking about the shitty food we had to swallow for the past four days. People within the secretariat are annoyed about that. They are not as cool as me, you know.’ She kept dancing.
‘We will fix it, Sandra. I can’t say much more than that now. But I promise, we will fix it when I’m back in Brussels,’ I said, and I asked her to relate to the others that I truly understood how that cheap deal with the hotel’s caterer was far from ideal.
Lorenzo was now hugging a representative from the Student Union’s delegation while he showed her some pictures on his phone. I envied the fact that they were enjoying the evening. I was angry with him because he had already ruined mine. And a batch of memories flooded in. The sweat, the pool, the smell of pine trees, the curly hair. I could not stand that they came back unexpectedly, piercing my brain on an endless loop. I felt like dissolving into them, falling, flowing and melting.
Then, in a burst of lucidity, I thought I could connect the dots again. I wanted to understand. I thought that if I could put together a rational explanation for what had happened, all that would disappear from my head, together with all the images, and I could rest a bit. Despite how hard I was trying to nail it down, I couldn’t see any plausible explanations. I thought of myself as doomed to wander until the end, from love to love, without understanding and without relief.
*
I went to the bar by myself this time to avoid anyone else coming up to me with a cheap drink. It stank of smoke. I kept forgetting that they had not banned cigarettes in Lower Macedonia™. My lungs were not happy. A guy in his early twenties was queuing at the counter next to me, holding a menu. He looked super cute, clean cut and fit. I was imagining his abs when he pushed his chest towards the counter. I noticed he was wearing a white T-shirt not long enough to cover the back of his waist, revealing a sexy striped boxer brief.
‘Hi, can I look at the menu, too?’ I asked.
‘Sure,’ he replied. ‘Where are you from?’ He passed me a thick wooden tablet with the names of the drinks drawn against a backdrop of a map of the continent.
‘Technically from Brussels, but I have been all over the place in the past few years,’ I said. ‘And you?’
‘I’m from here, well, not exactly from here. I come from Nea Gonia, in Halkidiki, but I study literature in Thessaloniki at the University of the Mediterranean™,’ he replied. He had a soft accent, especially when pronouncing the letter L, which seemed to me as if he was caressing it in his mouth. I was more and more fascinated.
‘I am Hephaestion. What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘Bastian, Bastian Balthazar Bux,’ I replied.
‘And what do you do in life?’ he asked.
‘Well, during the daytime I run an organisation called The Federation®. In my spare time, I get dumped over BreakupShop™. That is why I need to get a drink, a strong one. What do you think I should get?’
‘If you want to drink like a local, you should try #TBT®,’ he said. ‘That’s the bar special.’ He showed me where #TBT® was marked on the menu map. It cost fifteen Macedonian rupiahs, something like one and a half xEUs.
It was a shot made up of tequila, Baileys® and Tabasco®. I felt a punch in my gut just thinking how fucked up that stuff might taste. But I also felt like congratulating the bartender for the geopolitical imagery, and the owners of the Rover Hangover for having managed to register the trademark for such a widely known label. In order to get #TBT® registered, they would have to have been the first to use the mark for commercial use, which was clearly not the case. They possibly took advantage of the Privatisation Concordat that freed for purchase several hundreds of thousands of trademarks, brands and names when the armistice was signed. Or that was a fake trademark, illegally placed on their menu.
‘Do you know where #TBT® originally comes from?’ I asked.
‘I think it used to refer to Throwback Thursday on Twitter®,’ he said.
A friend of his, who was also there at the counter and happened to be eavesdropping on our conversation, jumped in. ‘No, #TBT® is another way of saying TBH, to be honest,’ he said.
‘I heard someone else referring to it as Taco Bell Time,’ Hephaestion said.
The thing is that #TBT was one of these chameleonic hashtags that changed over time. During the civil war, the media used #TBT for a while, as they always liked acronyms and hashtags to promote viewership. Since no one could tell what #TBT really referred to, in those gloomy days, collective confusion mounted. An analyst from an obscure think tank in Umeå postulated that #TBT was a bioweapon produced by the Russians. For others, #TBT resonated as a new sexually transmitted disease. It was common to see people writing that they were #TBT-negative on their Grindr ©2009 Grindr LLC and Tinder ©2013 Tinder, Inc accounts, two sex dating apps first made popular back then.
‘Look at the map on the menu,’ I said, to end this argument once and for all. ‘What do you see?’
‘Well,’ Hephaestion said, ‘I see Lower Macedonia™ and the other regions of the European Union™. There is also the P.A.R.I.S.™, other city-states, the territories of the Swiss Confederation, including Bavaria and Vorarlberg, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden and Northern Ireland.’
‘Bravo!’ I said. ‘That’s exactly what #TBT® is about. The Big Transformation, the new borders after the war.’ I was shocked that, despite this having been a traumatic experience for us all, by the time I was in the Rover Hangover bar, #TBT® was just a nasty-sounding drink.
I had to try it, though. ‘All right, three #TBT®s, please,’ I asked the bartender.
Only a few years earlier, the older brothers and sisters of these two guys must have been fighting barely a few hundred metres from the bar, in the battle that ignited the war. That was, after all, the reason why we were having the General Assembly in Thessaloniki, symbolically commemorating the fact that, in a place where people once fought with guns, we were now rebuilding a new governance for the continent.
‘These are on me!’ I cheered to them, and I quickly downed it all, preventing that creamy monstrosity from being in close contact with my taste buds for too long. Then they both left to meet their friends, and I ordered something else.

About the author

As a political geographer, Giuseppe has always been interested in how the intersection between technology and politics is moving towards uncharted territories in the future. He has recently published a series of scientific articles about how the internet of things and algorithms will change polic... view profile

Published on May 24, 2018

Published by Unbound Digital

0-1000 words

Genre: Science fiction

Reviewed by

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