Some critics are irked by Donna Tartt’s inconsistent references to technology in The Goldfinch (she grants her protagonist an iPhone in one chapter, then strains plausibility by cutting off his Internet access for the multi-year span of another plot arc). Awkward? Maybe, although for me at least, the story was rewarding enough to make the effort of suspending disbelief worthwhile. But if you’re looking for a fictional universe where the Internet is a central concern, not just a plot device, here are a couple of recent novels of interest.
Thomas Pynchon was writing about enigmatic distributed communication networks before there was an Internet, so a Pynchon novel that takes on the ‘net is pretty momentous. Bleeding Edge is set in New York just after the nineties dotcom crash, in the months leading up to and following the events of September 11, 2001. (See Michael Chabon’s review for a dissection of the September 11 aspects of the novel.) Through the eyes of fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow, Pynchon gives us scenes of dotcom hubris in ruins:
She finds the door wide open and the place empty, another failed dotcom joining the officescape of the time – tarnished metallic surfaces, shaggy gray soundproofing, Steelcase screens and Herman Miller workpods – already beginning to decompose, littered, dust gathering . . . Well, almost empty. From some distant cubicle comes a tinny electronic melody Maxine recognizes as “Korobushka,” the anthem of nineties workplace fecklessness, playing faster and faster and accompanied by screams of anxiety. Ghost vendor indeed. Has she entered some supernatural timewarp where the shades of office layabouts continue to waste uncountable person-hours playing Tetris? Between that and Solitaire for Windows, no wonder the tech sector tanked.
Characters voice critiques of the excesses of turn-of-the-millennium web design:
And then there’s DeepArcher, an immersive virtual world that sounds like Second Life art-directed by David Lynch:
When the program is loaded, there is no main page, no music score, only a sound ambience, growing slowly louder, that Maxine recognizes from a thousand train and bus stations and airports, and the smoothly cross-dawning image of an interior whose detail, for a moment breathtakingly, is far in advance of anything she’s seen on the gaming platforms Ziggy and his friends tend to use, flaring beyond the basic videogame brown of the time into the full color spectrum of very early morning, polygons finely smoothed to all but continuous curves, the rendering, modeling, and shadows, blending and blur, handled elegantly, even with…could you call it genius? Making Final Fantasy X, anyway, look like an Etch A Sketch. A framed lucid dream, it approaches, and wraps Maxine, and strangely without panic she submits.
Pynchon waxes ironic about the decline of reading (Maxine to her son, on the subject of a thumb drive loaded with documents: “And now your friends have seen it before I have.” “They … uh, they don’t read that much, Mom. Nothing personal. A generational thing.”) and the Internet’s failure to live up to its promise (“Look at it, every day more lusers than users, keyboards and screens turning into nothin but portals to Web sites for what the Management wants everybody addicted to, shopping, gaming, jerking off, streaming endless garbage–“), but the novel’s conclusion seems to imply at least a precarious hope for the future of art, technology, and humans in general. DeepArcher eludes the clutches of sinister commercial/government interests by going open source and evolves into a kind of digital afterlife, where both the novel’s murdered characters and pre-9/11 New York City live on. One character speculates: “Could be there’s enough good hackers around interested in fighting back. Outlaws who’ll work for free, show no mercy for anybody who tries to use the Net for evil purposes.” We can only hope.
More bluntly pessimistic is Dave Eggers’ The Circle, an Orwellian satire about the end of personal privacy in the age of social networks, location-aware devices, ubiquitous cameras, and uninterrupted connectivity. The Circle tells the story of Mae, a naïve new recruit at an all-powerful tech monopoly (think Google merged with Facebook and Apple) who rises rapidly from true believer in the corporate culture of mandatory “sharing” to 24/7 exposure as a reality-TV-style online celebrity.
Eggers might have benefited from some of Orwell’s conciseness – where Animal Farm eviscerates Soviet Marxism in a hundred and fifty pages, The Circle takes nearly five hundred to dole out its verdict on Facebook et al. Maybe the warning has come too late for me and I’ve already weakened my attention span with too much screen time, but even before the novel’s halfway point, I was all, like, yeah, we’re happily signing over our freedom to a corporate-run surveillance state. Yadda, yadda, yadda. tl;dr.
The best part of The Circle is how precisely it evokes the chirpy coerciveness of Silicon-Valley-speak. Here’s Mae getting oriented to her multi-screen workspace and mandatory social network participation:
“Now it’s on to the really fun stuff. Screen three. This is where your main social and Zing feeds appear. I heard you weren’t a Zing user?”
Mae admitted she hadn’t been, but wanted to be.
“Great,” Gina said. “So now you have a Zing account. I made up a name for you: MaeDay. Like the war holiday. Isn’t that cool?”
Mae wasn’t so sure about the name, and couldn’t remember a holiday by that name.
“And I connected your Zing account with the total Circle community, so you just got 10,041 new followers! Pretty cool…
“Now, next to the Zing feed, you’ll see the window for your primary social feed. You’ll also see that we split it into two parts, the InnerCircle social feed, and your external social, that’s your OuterCircle. Isn’t that cute? You can merge them, but we find it helpful to see the two distinct feeds. But of course the OuterCircle is still in the Circle, right? Everything is. Make sense so far?”
Mae said it did.
The dialogue captures the creeping incrementalism of our abdication – one more box checked, one more unread TOC agreed to, one more account granted access. And embarrassingly, the siren song leading us astray isn’t even the oratory of a totalitarian cult leader – more like a high-school clique’s queen bee promising us fun, status, and belonging. “Cool, right?” As a character in Bleeding Edge remarks, in the civil war over online freedom, “the slaves don’t even know that’s what they are.”
It’s enough to make you hope the future turns out to be a bit more anarchic, mysterious, fragmented, Pynchonian.