The Circle – Dave Eggers

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This novel tells the story of Mae Holland who takes a job at The Circle, one of California’s new silicon valley enterprises. It’s a fabulous place to work – young, trendy, vibrant and cool. There are leisure facilities to die for, restaurants, debates and speakers, it’s a happening place and Mae feels privileged to be there.

The Circle is an open enterprise and different from much of the internet in that no one can be anonymous: to gain access you need proof of identity. The business aim is to become indispensable to consumers and provide advertisers with closely targeted information.

As the story develops Mae becomes more and more absorbed into life on the Circle campus. She works incredibly hard, is seduced by its vision of a new world, becomes a model employee, and is promoted. Meanwhile at home her father is ill, but the generous support of the Circle’s health plan improves his life dramatically.

At Circle HQ there are technological developments and utopian dreams: there are meetings to consider new approaches to social cohesion and public welfare, and to present new technologies. The development of tiny cameras is significant. These can be placed anywhere, hidden easily from view, and offer beautiful glimpses of far away mountains, easy updates on surfing conditions along the coast and simple identification of which police use violence to quell rioters in Tahir Square.

Eventually politicians begin to wear the cameras as buttonholes, so that everything they do can be observed – it’s all above board, no opportunity for corruption – an honest, open world must be a better world. Mae is really happy with these ideas. She has idealistic views of the possible political outcomes, but the author introduces a range of factors that point in a contradictory direction.

Mae’s old boyfriend decides to go off grid to protect his privacy, with exciting and damaging consequences. Her parents find the cameras which monitor her father’s health and activity desperately intrusive. A colleague has a nervous breakdown when she realises that the privacy she gave up did have advantages.

Then Mae gets romantically involved with a colleague who warns her of the dangers the Circle presents. He faces her with an ultimatum – destroy the Circle or watch it destroy the world. But she is not sure. Is her colleague simply mad, or paranoid? The book ends as Mae makes her fatal decision.

So The Circle explores basic social and political issues raised by developments in the internet. These are topical issues, considering the controversy about social media’s impact on elections on both sides of the Atlantic, and that is what drew me to the book, which was published in 2013 and awarded book of the year by various reputable sources including The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Observer and the TLS. It was in fact Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who made the recommendation in The Guardian and it’s hard to get more fashionable and on trend than that – a brilliant Nigerian novelist with a new theory of feminism recommends The Circle as book of the year. You’d be daft not to read it, though in fact Adichie is a far better writer than Eggers judging by what is in this book compared to those of hers that I have read.

I did enjoy The Circle. It’s an easy read with a rapidly moving plot and a series of quite interesting episodes. The description of life on the Circle campus is fun: tennis and volleyball, parties and booze – a life of guilt free hedonism. Mae herself is a sympathetic character with some interest in the great outdoors to sort of broaden her character. But really she is only a cipher. Other characters equally are not fully drawn or particularly interesting, and tend to be caricatures rather than really convincing.

So the old boyfriend is a backwoods hippy type, fat and hairy. How could she ever have slept with him? The two lovers on campus are equally thinly drawn. One is a mysterious character who she finds sexually attractive, but it’s not really clear why, and their love making is both preposterous and inane. The other is a misfit and a geek, making the most basic social errors, crass and embarrassing.

Then there are the three wise men – founders of this enterprise. We meet each one but there is not really much to learn about them. One explores the deep sea trenches bringing back weird and rare specimens. As the novel reaches a climax these are used in a long scene to present a trite and uninspiring symbol. The “wise man” feeds each of his new specimens to the most dangerous – a ravenous shark that reminds me of my son’s labrador – it’ll eat anything! Well there you are then – that’s the Circle – but will Mae have the sense to realise? Read the book to find out!

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie

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I picked up this 2014 Nebula and Arthur C Clarke award winning sci-fi novel in my remaindered  bookshop in Totnes.  The other two volumes of the trilogy are available there too.  Will I bother with them?

Well the blurb is pretty compelling – Leckie is described as thrilling and an heir to Banks – but I never got on with his science fiction stuff anyway.  This is a pretty fast moving story about an artificial intelligence named Breq, gifted with a sentient body and a member of some sort of intergalactic empire.  We’re obviously treading familiar ground here.  At one time Breq was a starship and consisted of soldiers, guards and the ship itself, all run by one intelligence with multiple embodiments.  We get to see this side of Breq in a series of timeslip sequences in which the backstory is narrated.  At the same time, now down to only one body – the ancillary of the title – Breq finds him/herself isolated on a frozen planet, intent on returning to the heart of empire to carry out a final and necessary mission – to implement justice.

I enjoyed lots of elements in this story, and especially the early part in which we hear of how Breq’s ship became involved in a scene of carnage and slaughter that contradicted the strict code of morality at the heart of his / her program.  Elements of Isaac Asimov and the first law of robotics here.

Later Breq visits a distant planet in which the description and characterisation can only be described as banal and cliched – people with 6 or 8 limbs and it was a dearly held tenet of their society – this is only a brief plot interlude to get Breq back from the fringes of the galaxy, but it was a bit trite – I would have expected more – the writer did much better elsewhere.

The denouement involves some quite complicated sections in which Anaander Mianaai – the controlling intelligence of the whole empire – is discovered to be in conflict with itself: there are now two AMs, and Breq needs to escape from or destroy one whilst protecting the other.  I found the logic of all this internal conflict unclear, and the events that arose from it quite confusing – not knowing whether the soldiers encountered were from the good or the bad AM!

In that respect the ending of the novel was a little unsatisfactory.  Will I read the others? Well the jury’s out on that.  It depends on what else is on offer when I next go down to Totnes, I suppose it will be interesting to give the next volume a go – to see where Ann Leckie takes the story, but I think I’ll skim through it quite carefully first, just to check.

Check out other views below – a common thread is the focus on gender pronouns.  In this respect the novel is seen as impressive because it engages with gender politics and language ideas that are coming to the fore of science fiction conversation at the moment. If true, all I can say is that sci-fi is almost thirty years out of date in this respect.

Tor – Review re Nebula Award

Guardian – Comments on the Award of Arthur C Clarke Fiction Prize to this Novel

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is science fiction of the old school – from the sixties when travel to distant worlds seemed a real possibility. It’s a book full of hover cars, laser guns, space travel, androids and life on Mars; it’s post-apocalyptic in a way that typifies the Cold War period – a world destroyed by nuclear fallout, humanity exiled to space, a few degenerate humans bound to a decaying earth.

It’s interesting to look at the “prophecies” Dick’s imagination suggests: to identify how close he came to the truth, and how much they were a product of the particular fears of the time. There is a concern about the environment: animals have become so rare as to be status symbols – the poorer classes use electronic substitutes, and really the issue is technology, not the environment. Interestingly, and attempting to go beyond the obvious, Dick has America and Russia on peaceful terms. Hover cars were quite ubiquitous in fiction of this type; androids became a cipher for the genre – as in Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica: they still look like fantasy 50 years later.

Dick’s book is the well known source for another film – Blade Runner. It’s not one I’ve seen all the way through, though I did catch the end once on a late TV showing. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is quite different from what I saw then. It’s clearly a product of American popular fiction – concise and sharp, focused on action and essentially a detective story. The cop sets out to eliminate the villain, to kill the androids: we observe his inner life, recognise his troubles and register our empathy: status, income, work relationships and marital strain in a shallow, materialistic world, with a slight nod to spirituality of a science fiction kind: a new religion. In this sense the hero, Rick Deckard, stands for all those twentieth century Americans whose identity was bound up in their material possessions.

There is another focus though, on what it means to be human. The androids attempt to convince the hero that they deserve a chance to live, and in doing so Dick raises some moral issues. The scene in which the beautiful female android he has just slept with slowly picks off four of a spider’s legs is for me the most gruesome in the book. The psychopathy of android intelligence. Other sections, particularly the mental breakdown of Deckard towards the end of the book are less convincing and not as well written.

Of its kind this is of course very good. The plot zips along, it’s an easy read, good fun, a bit less sexy than a modern version might turn out to be; characters are delineated in fairly basic terms, description limited to the pretty much essential. So – there you go!

The Guardian – Review