Mat Johnson on his sci-fi space satire ‘Invisible Things’

A portrait of Mat Johnson wearing a ribbed white sweater.

Mat Johnson’s fifth novel, Invisible Things, is set in a space colony that bears more than a passing resemblance to Earth.

(Ricardo Nagaoka / For the Time)

On the shelf

invisible things

By MatJohnson
One World: 272 pages, $27

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EUGENE, Ore. – “I think I spend about 28% of my waking day thinking about our reality capabilities,” says author Mat Johnson, “and how we don’t have discussions about two different interpretations of reality. We live in completely different realities.”

Reconsidering reality and its dissatisfaction is a career hazard for Johnson, a novelist celebrated for his satires on America’s self-deceptions – including a new one about a colony in Jupiter’s orbit divided by differing interpretations of the collective past and very much like itself feels at home.

Well, maybe not Johnson’s current home. He and I speak in the immediate reality of a brew pub devoted to Scandinavian swagger on an unseasonably cold day in late May. He has split his time between Portland and Eugene since 2018, when he joined the faculty at the University of Oregon.

Invisible Things, out next week, is Johnson’s fifth novel. In terms of an intergalactic adventure, it is a wild departure for the author. But it’s also a play with work that’s instantly known for its mix of satirical wit, heavy underlying themes (including his own multiracial heritage), and a persistent undercurrent of optimism. You don’t know a novel by Mat Johnson until you read it.

Pym, Johnson’s groundbreaking 2010 novel about a “failed” black academic obsessed with a racist novel by Edgar Allan Poe, was praised for being “exuberantly funny, sometimes with buddy-movie antics, but often with head-shaking disbelief about the insane ways of people.”

The author’s 2015 follow-up, Loving Day, was set in Johnson’s native Philadelphia; it was by far his most personal book. Its protagonist, Warren Duffy, settles into an inherited house and eventually encounters ghosts, comics, and his teenage daughter, whom he never met. He also explores his identity as a “mulatto” – a “racial optical illusion”. As Johnson explained in an interview, the impetus for the novel was that “as an adult, I started to warm to mixed identities. … But there are still some things I felt uncomfortable about. I had to work through that.”

The novel also prepared Johnson for many questions about racial categorization that he was not always willing to answer. Also, as Donald Trump marched to the White House, he expanded his satirical aim. Invisible Things is set in New Roanoke, a space colony discovered when a spaceship from Earth, the SS Delaney, is “kidnapped” by the residents of the colony. These residents are descended from 17th century human settlers along with later waves of UFO abductees. The novel starts from its wild build-up and delivers belly laughs and belly punches in quick succession.

The cover of the novel "invisible things"

“Things Invisible: A Novel” by Mat Johnson


Victor LaValle, a longtime friend and another black writer who mixes genres with devotion, admires the underhanded weight of Johnson’s comedy. “Humour/satire is such a great and classic way to approach the most painful of issues,” he told me over email. “[R]Readers won’t realize they’ve been made to think deeply about something until they’ve already started laughing. This is part of Mat’s charm on the site and in real life. To see the absurdity of a moment or a way of being and make it clear to others without ever raising your voice.”

Johnson, who is also the author of four comics, is jostled over a pint of Freyja Blonde to explain his sense of humor and shares his origin story. “I think the two most important things were sheep farming and slavery,” he says. He was raised in Philadelphia to an Irish-American father and an African-American mother. “I didn’t realize my dad was funny until I was in my late teens because he used to mumble around the dinner table, and then I actually started listening to what he was mumbling and it was sarcastic, funny stuff.” His mother’s life, he says, “was triumphant, but it was tough, and humor was an integral part of her way of dealing with it.”

Johnson’s mother and aunt ran away from an abusive father to live in Philadelphia. Later his aunt married a Jewish doctor. He calls his perspective a “mixture” of “that black sense of humor that was very irreverent and essential in dealing with” oppression. “And then that Irish sense of humor; it came from their type of oppression. And then a Jewish sense of humor emerged the kind of oppression.”

Invisible Things is dystopian less in its sci-fi elements and more in its construction of a world that stifles that sort of hybridity — and with it, any possibility of establishing a collective truth. A rigid class division divides New Roanoke “between the people recently ‘gathered’ and those born there. … Many indigenous people could trace their ancestry back centuries – and were notorious for letting others know this whenever possible.” Enormous economic inequality fuels further segregation; Communication across the divide takes place largely in television noise and political slogans.

Nalini, newly arrived aboard the ship in Shanghai, serves as an outside observer. She attends an event where the audience rejects their own sensory experiences. “They beamed, intoxicated by the act of proving publicly that their faith is stronger than what they have all seen with their own eyes. Nalini didn’t have a word to record her answer. But hers was horror.”

This sounds familiar to anyone who’s lived in the US since at least 2016, but more specifically it reads like a reflection of the nation’s polarized response to the COVID-19 pandemic – half the country seems eager to move away from the scientific solve reality.

In fact, Johnson wrote the book in 2017 and 2018. After that it sat in his drawer while the author wrote nothing at all for three years. He was too distracted by a crisis far more personal than the social divisions around him. Just as Johnson’s mother’s health was declining, his wife began undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. His mother died earlier this year; his wife recovered and her prognosis is good.

Johnson calls those years before the pandemic “the lowest time of my life. Everything went wrong. … I was able to sleep for about an hour and a half and then I would wake up for three hours and then sleep another hour and a half and then I would be tired all day.”

They lived in Texas at the time; Their move to Oregon allowed the family to recover both physically and financially. Another contributing factor was a sense of looming racist animus — everything from a surge in MAGA hats to a classmate using racial slurs at his daughter on the school bus.

Mat Johnson with his teenage daughter, facing away from the camera, outdoors.

Johnson with his daughter Jasmine under the 405 Freeway in Portland, Oregon.

(Ricardo Nagaoka / For the Time)

Johnson's teenage daughter, foreground, and he looks at her.

(Ricardo Nagaoka / For the Time)

Oregon fits Johnson, although the vast majority of its residents are white. Portland actually reminds him of his old Philly neighborhood, Germantown. “The white liberal population of my part of Philadelphia is almost identical to [Portland]. They share the values ​​that are really important to me, no matter how often they are ridiculed.”

Meanwhile, the country as a whole is no utopia. By the time Johnson emerged from his family crisis to put the finishing touches on the book, the world had warped to look even more like the ones he invented — from the Antivax hysteria to the Black Lives Matter protests to May 6th. January riots. In writing the novel, “I came up with an absurd metaphor that’s just normal now. It was really bizarre, but I was like, ‘Oh my god. I called it ‘I’m being overtaken by reality’. That’s awful.'”

But even if American society turns into a dystopian fiction into a silly game, “Invisible Things” feels au courant. Johnson not only seems to capture the chaos of the 2020 election, with the losing side insisting everything is fake, but also predicts the backlash to the 1619 Project and the wave of book bans that followed. I asked him if his author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, had any influence; the question did not surprise him.

“I’ve noticed with the 1619 project and the BLM movement that many of my white colleagues are asking me how my work would change,” he said. “It’s not. I’ve lived there all my life. The biggest difference for me was that there was such a white reaction. The brilliance of Hannah-Jones was putting it down and articulating a worldview, but the worldview” was already there.

Johnson wasn’t the only one to do this ongoing work through genre fiction. LaValle, Percival Everett, filmmaker Jordan Peele, and others have helped recast the role of the protagonist in thriller, satire, and horror films as someone other than white. “I was just talking yesterday,” Johnson says, “about how black men are such a center of fear in American culture that the idea that black men can actually become totally scared is still revolutionary.”

Despite his focus on a culture moving at warp speed toward the farthest absurd, talking to Johnson is reassuring. It feels like facing a die-hard optimist. During our conversation we pull the invisible things out of the existential grab bag and look at them until we can see them, name them. Talking about them makes them less scary — and helps us believe for a moment that, as one of his characters puts it, we can “start acknowledging reality and facing our problems together.”

Suddenly three hours have passed and Johnson has to take an Amtrak back to Portland, where his family will be sharing pizza on Friday night. He sets out to get his bike back on. I wave goodbye as he departs like a gleeful Einstein into a bizarre mix of rain and sleet in late May — a scene as ordinary and apocalyptically surreal as his fiction or America in 2022. Mat Johnson on his sci-fi space satire ‘Invisible Things’

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