Illustrator, critic, essayist, writer and... pharmacist, François Rouiller bounds strongly into the ring with the double-volume Métaquine®. An abundantly multi-faceted novel which dives into the consciousness of a fistful of recurring characters, all linked distantly or more closely to a new drug with previously undocumented properties, developed by the pharma giant Globantis. There's a mother in the terminal stages of cyber-addiction sealed in the great virtual community where reality appears incongruous. Her persecuted, dreamy son. A manager greedy for profit. An old neuro-scientist seeing warning signs in the properties of a "drug that can change hyperactively naughty kids into eager little angels" and that no-one can do without. These many in-depth characters flesh out this terrifying future. The whole novel written in an edgy well-worked style. It's dense, profound, ambitious and eloquent: incontestably a major new landmark in French-Swiss science fiction...
A drug that calms down turbulent, undisciplined or headstrong children: dear mum, dear teacher, isn't that ground-breaking? At last, peace in the classroom or after a day's work, aggressiveness quelled and an improvement in results... Métaquine promises all that and more.
Métaquine sounds like Ritalin (a psycho-stimulant) or Ketamine (an anaesthetic and hallucinogenic), two drugs that actually exist. François Rouiller plays with the numerous properties of these much-discussed drugs in order to invent his own. Six characters find themselves in different ways encountering the miracle product and these six voices go to make up an excellent polyphonic novel.
First of all Regis, by his very nature the best test subject: a completely spaced-out prepubescent; he spends his lesson pretending he's in another world, the Duchy, with two brilliant friends. Gifted and self-taught, he is picked on by both the other kids and the teacher who has by now had enough of this dreamer. Aurelia, Regis' mother, is beyond spaced-out, being stuck in SimDom: she's a cyber-addict whose brain, disconnected from her body, lives on autonomously. For everyone else she is just a vegetable. Henri, the geek no-hoper, has taken in Aurelia and her son. It would be an exaggeration to say he looks after them, since he's not really capable of looking after himself. Sophie, a retired doctor in neuro-science with the beginnings of Alzheimer's, is Regis' neighbour, the only one who talks to him and vice versa.
Curtis is the marketing manager at Globantis, the company commercialising Métaquine. Clotilde, a councillor and campaigner, is looking for ways to bring him down...
Another voice makes itself heard and it's Ferdinand A. Glapier. We're not quite sure who he is but what we do know is that he's a licensed agitator, a cyber-thinker absolutely set on stirring up public apathy.
Stirring it up? Yes, because we are all anaesthetised by publicity, lies and marketing. They condition us to make us accept anything and elect the worst type of thug. And what would we not do to help our offspring get good marks at school and not bother us at the weekend? Don't worry; François Rouiller isn't after us, brainwashed citizens that we are. He is condemning the all-powerful nature and cynicism of the pharmaceutical groups who, under the pretext of philanthropy, finance medical research but cut the grants to whoever doesn't toe the line. Who offer to test students who are failing at school, after having organised vast marketing campaigns directed at families and child psychiatrists ready to try out the new miracle product everyone's talking about.
A pharmacist himself, François Rouiller knows what he's talking about and shrewdly reveals the fraud. All the characters possess great depth, rendering them credible and therefore familiar. We recognise the big loser with criminal desires as much as the poor teenager, not because they are caricatures, but because they are only human and we understand them. The most difficult to get is in fact Aurelia, lost in her computer-generated world, but her voice is also that of a damaged woman. The bad guy in the story, Curtis Candrian, is fascinating because he is such a cynically clever manipulator.
We pick up their story when the advent of Métaquine seems inevitable. Clotilde is alone in her fight against the pharmaceutical giant; the researchers in need of finance seem to have no problems of conscience. But then, here and there, glitches are starting to appear that herald a few problems: Henri is starting to see users losing it after a botched repair of their headsets (indispensable for logging on to SimDom) and Regis notices his imaginary Duchy is being invaded by simulations he hasn't generated. And then there is this picture, which keeps turning up in different places - at Globantis, in Sophie's home - of a place that Regis and Clotilde recognise as the old La Guillanne orphanage ...
My only criticism of this first volume would be that the plot takes a long time to get going. This works in favour of the characters, of course.
François Rouiller drives his point home through the words of Glapier between each part of the novel. The cyber agitator, not mincing his words, attacks big pharmaceutical groups, corrupt policies and universal stupidity. Isn't it true to say that we've already given up on our brain before we've even started to take Metaquine? That we're all suckers voting for thieves, that we've abandoned our pride and our intelligence just to "look like" something? Look cool, younger and thinner, look more like the fantasy peddled by ads and the cinema?
If we can be manipulated to such a great extent, it is not so much thanks to the publicity people, the politicians and other gurus that we'd like to shoulder the burden of our stupidity. It's much more that, in the name of illusion, we have rejected the ability to use our capacities to the full. We are subjugated to success, money and youth, in short, appearance. This supremacy of the image is encouraged by the media and makes it easy for the pharmaceutical industry to realise its ambition of not only supplying treatment and medication, but also of getting rich and making their shareholders rich too. All our individual consciousness (or what's left of it) needs to do to shake off the yoke is to say ‘no'. Refusing Metaquine means you accept that you are weak, a dreamer, ugly or just different. It's accepting being you.
This book is really ingenious! Read it!