Science fiction has long indulged us with visions of holograms—in Star Wars, Princess Leia sends a recording of herself with the iconic message “You’re my only hope.” However, such fantastical technology is no longer that—on election night in 2008, CNN summoned rapper Will.I.Am to the studio out of thin air.
Dave Eggers does not explore this now-plausible phenomenon from any scientific perspective, but he uses the hologram as a superb symbol in his aptly titled novel A Hologram for the King. A hologram is a visually spectacular, weightless glimpse into the future, but its very existence is reliant on tangible, grounded equipment. Eggers’ novel is about a man, Alan Clay, who aspires to have a role in developing the world’s newest, most sparkling metropolis, but he depends on those with a firmer grasp on the city’s foundations. Not coincidentally, Alan is a salesman for an IT company called Reliant.
Eggers portrays an America that still believes it is the eminent player in the race for the future, even though its infrastructure is being built in factories halfway around the world. The hologram—a phantasmic apparition composed of no more than waves and particles of unsubstantial light—represents the dreams of Alan and his country. Given the unusually decorative nature of the book’s cover and Eggers’ frequently sardonic tone, it’s tempting to describe the novel itself as a hologram. But it is composed of a heartier substance.
Molded in the material of his namesake, Alan Clay has his feet planted firmly in the sinking sand of the Saudi Arabian desert. A once successful bicycle executive, he spoiled his fortune by losing control of the jobs that he outsourced. His blue collar father—a World War II veteran who brags of killing Italians and escaping from a Nazi prison camp—was a union worker himself and has no qualms about voicing his disapproval. Alan ends up incapable of paying his own daughter’s college tuition, and his estranged ex-wife has abandoned that responsibility. He is racked with guilt.
Alan’s remorse runs deeper than his self-inflicted economic hardships. He is emblematic of a generation of Baby-Boomers that feels responsible for its children’s dwindling opportunities and believes it may have failed to earn the highly tangible sacrifices of a previous generation. Alan feels he has let down those closest to him and failed to contribute to the world in any meaningful way. While it’s true that he has not made the wisest decisions, he has not done anything terrible enough to warrant his own self-loathing; his situation is tragic because he has no one to rely on himself.
There are many reasons why Star Wars lives on. Every one of Han Solo’s lines is a showstopper, and considering the fan base it probably helped that the woman who appeared in its legendary hologram was a young, loosely clad Carrie Fisher. But Star Wars perseveres because every day someone somewhere reflects on that hologram and other lasting, vivid images of what the future might hold.
In his own way, Eggers is responding to that vision of the future. Some may find his style too preachy, or his hypotheses too simple. But everyone can appreciate how thoughtfully he presents his ideas. A Hologram for the King belongs in our conversation about the foreseeable—and the fantastic—future.
– Zach Borenstein