At first glance, the state of Apollo in the year 2150 is the ideal society. Named for the Greek god of light, truth and knowledge, Apollo offers education free of charge to all citizens, the arts flourish and agriculture is common knowledge, but there is a darkness lurking beneath the surface.
While citizens are encouraged to learn and ask questions, seeking out or discussing the Wall which surrounds Apollo carries a minimum sentence of 10 years in a maximum security prison. Students learn about it in school of course, but any information-seeking outside of the classroom is forbidden. College student Flora can’t shake her curiosity surrounding this barrier though and constantly wonders what’s on the other side despite leading a comfortable life with her parents, best friend Andrew and golden retriever Ernest.
"The Apollo Illusion," the debut novel from award-winning journalist Shari Lopatin, offers two very different ideas of what the future may hold. One, the utopia of Apollo, which was established in 2075 in what used to be the northern part of Arizona from Sedona to the Grand Canyon, is similar to today’s world other than some technological advances and the fact that the government has strict control over all information. The second looks at The Other Side, a world where technology has advanced far enough to cure end-stage cancers with a quick surgical procedure, but books and music no longer exist, and humanity has suffered as a result of reduced personal interactions.
The idea for the story came to Lopatin in 2013 when, during a Rosh Hashanah dinner, her mother shared a news story she had seen about babies learning the swiping motion of digital tablets before learning to communicate with their parents.
“I began to consider the repercussions of a society where people are more comfortable with technology than each other,” Lopatin explained. “What would happen if you took someone who lived today and threw them into that society? That became the premise for 'The Apollo Illusion.'”
With the beginning of the novel set in the Flagstaff area and a brief camping scene in Oak Creek Canyon, readers will find a familiarity in the woods Flora and Andrew explore each Saturday morning while marking discoveries on their map because, as Flora likes to say, “What’s knowledge without curiosity?”
Although the plot moves along quickly without too much development at first, the story picks up the pace once a series of events forces Flora to seek help from classmate Don, who seems to know a lot about The Other Side and says he can get her past the Wall.
Without much information other than an address and a bus ticket, Flora manages to escape the watchful cameras of the Wall and enters a society in stark contrast to her own. Upon arriving in Phoenix, the eerily empty streets show no signs of life and she begins to think she was mistaken for wanting to know what was on the other side.
The timely release of "The Apollo Illusion" comes in the wake of “alternative facts” and attacks on the “fake news” media from President Trump and his administration.
“I think journalism is essential,” Lopatin said, before rewinding and clarifying that statement. “Reputable, unbiased and independent journalism is essential to a functioning democracy. It’s the fourth arm of government, the checks and the balances.”
Without it, she imagines The Other Side as a place where the citizens mindlessly accept whatever they’re told by the technological systems used to run hospitals, museums and everything in between.
It’s a dark look at a future more closely in alignment with the present than Lopatin anticipated when she completed the first draft four years ago. Driverless cars, printable food and contact lenses that combine reality with a virtual display in the style of Google Glass may make existence more convenient, but they are missing the personal touch and can lead to unintended consequences.
“I wanted to think about the psychological effects of humanity as a whole and one of the things I researched was the isolation and how that affects us. When people don’t have these connections, they are going to act out in other ways,” Lopatin said.
Mass shootings and bombings occur every day on The Other Side, but people have come to accept it as a part of the world in which they live. When a hospital in Phoenix is attacked, leaving 50 dead and 20 wounded, Flora is shocked by the senseless violence, but everyone else gets right back to business as soon as the system gives the all-clear.
At its core, the novel asks readers which reality they would prefer. It might seem at first the suffocating government of Apollo makes escape worth it, but the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
"The Apollo Illusion" was published by BookBooks Publishing on May 19. Visit www.ShariLopatin.com for more information.