“The Circle” by Dave Eggers (2013)

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The circle must be completed.

The circle must be completed.

“My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven.”

The Internet has changed the way we live in ways and to degrees that no one could ever have predicted. With a few clicks and taps, we can go shopping, share information, review products, communicate with people on the other side of the planet, tell the world about ourselves, pay bills, check our accounts, research topics and a myriad other things. Social media, Facebook, Twitter and the like, allow us to tell everyone what we’re thinking at any moment. Even more remarkably, we don’t even need to be in front a computer to access these powers now – we can be almost anywhere. But, really, is all of this for the good?

Mae Holland has just got a job – thanks to the string-pulling of her friend Annie – at The Circle, the vast corporation that controls most of the social media and online facets of the world, having subsumed Facebook, Google and everyone else sometime in the last six years. Users sign up using bank details and therefore there are no fake accounts anymore, and everyone can share their thoughts 24/7. Mae is employed at the campus in customer support where she must respond quickly to any of the advertisers who require help. But while she’s doing that, she’s got to attend all the non-mandatory but community-building events of the campus, share her own thoughts on everything, answer a constant stream of survey questions and read everyone else’s news feeds too.

While getting acclimatised, she meets two men who are curious about her, and she is fascinated by them. One is the clumsy but caring Francis, with a tragic past that has inspired his future goals, and the other is the strange, ethereal Kalden, a man who doesn’t even seem to exist anywhere in the Circle networks, but has access to everywhere on campus and is adamant that the circle must not be completed. Mae is enjoying her time at the campus, but when it comes to the attention of the bosses – the Three Wise Men – that she isn’t sharing quite as much as she could be, she becomes a cause for concern. As the Circle develops more and more ways to chip away at people’s privacy – all in the name of safety and community – Mae stumbles deeper into a network that is far greater than anything she could have imagined.

So, there is a lot in this book that owes itself to 1984, and probably Brave New World as well, and while I’ve read both, I remember more about the former. Like all good visions of the future, it brings into play our fears and concerns of the modern day. Already Fitbits and health trackers are worn by many, but in this book they become mandatory, measuring your heart rate, calorie intake and stress levels at all times. When the head honchos at the Circle develop SeeChange, tiny cameras that can be placed anywhere in the world without causing a distraction, the book really shows off its main conceit – that “secrets are lies”, and “privacy is theft”.

Mae begins as slightly unusual in this setting, as she doesn’t feel the need to share every waking moment of her life, which causes her colleagues and bosses some consternation. After discovering that Mae occasionally goes down to the bay to kayak by herself, they show genuine distress that there is absolutely no mention of this hobby on any of her networks – not one photo, zing (their version of a tweet), video or joined group that shows her interest in this. Why didn’t she tell anyone what happened when she visited her sick father that weekend? Could her experiences not help someone else who is dealing with a parent with MS? Determined to make her bosses happy, Mae quickly comes round to their way of thinking.

This book is terrifying. This is a world where secrets are seen as evil, and people believe that if anyone has a secret then they must be bad, because if all your thoughts and feelings were good, then why would you hide them? The Circle runs under the guise that knowing everything will lead us, as a species, to be our best selves, as there can be no crime or dishonesty when everything is known. It all makes perfect sense too, if you use that logic, but it’s misguided, and these people are in so deep that they might not be able to see the problems of this new technology.

The parallels between this and our world are also hammered home, but enjoyably so. The man behind the Circle’s foundation is Ty Gospodinov is a hoodie-wearing, rarely-seen expy of Mark Zuckerberg. The Circle campus, too, seems to be parodying Google’s campus, the Googleplex, with its laissez faire attitude – parties every night, thematic offices and general sense of “cool”. The company itself, while possibly having begun as a Facebook-like social network, now encompasses all areas of the Internet, and, like Google, is investing money in a myriad of other fields, such as self-driving cars, deep-sea exploration and crime prevention. Money makes the world go round.

As reality becomes more and more connected, we are perhaps not taking into account the issues of this level of information overload. Do we need to know everything? Are people’s opinions really that vital? Are secrets and lies necessary, even?

Far and away, this is the best book that I’ve read so far this year. It’s been a while since I read something that I could hardly put down, and even though it clocks in at around five hundred pages, it somehow didn’t feel long enough. Mirroring the issues the characters face, the information comes thick and fast, with speedy pacing, great narration and characters who couldn’t belong anywhere else, but fit this universe like a glove. It’s not just a novel – it’s a warning. This is the future, and it’s much closer than we think.

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“Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan (2012)

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Not enough hours in the day...

Not enough hours in the day…

“Lost in the shadows of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder.”

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me, or is generally reading this, that I absolutely adore bookstores. From the big corporate machines like Waterstone’s to grubby second-hand bookstores down back alleys, I love them all. I’ve been in stores that specialise in politics, or the paranormal. I’ve explored enormous labyrinthine buildings over several floors, or tiny one-room things with curious looking titles. I’ve climbed spiral staircases into dusty attics, and slipped down corridors to damp basements of leathery hardbacks. I even worked briefly in a university bookstore. I will never tire of them, that sense of thousands upon thousands of stories hidden away, waiting to reveal their secrets. And yet, I feel some disappointment, as I will never encounter a bookstore like Mr Penumbra’s.

Our narrator, Clay Jannon, is another one of those bright young things who has been left floundering by the recession. He was working for in web design for a bagel company, but they’ve gone belly up and he is now searching for something else to fill his hours and bank account. A chance encounter at a curious looking bookstore leads to him becoming the night clerk at Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The owner is curious, old and blue-eyed, completely trusting of his staff, but the store itself is stranger still. The single shop room is perhaps thirty feet high, books climbing up into the rafters. There aren’t many traditional books here, mostly unreadable tomes, each branded with a single name.

Even stranger than the books and the store are the customers. They rarely seem to buy anything, just swap out their last book for the next one. Clay becomes curious, wondering what sort of operation is being run here, and he soon finds himself embroiled in a centuries old mystery that he can only crack with the help of his wealthy friend Neel, a pretty young Googler called Kat, and a series of books he adored as a child.

This book, both witty and frothy with fun and love, is a totally engaging read. It takes you from the first printing presses back in history’s depths, right up to the Googleplex, Google’s head office. Clay is a funny narrator, a nerd caught up in a mystery that’s bigger than he can even envision. However, while the characters are lovely and very wonderfully nerdy, it is actually the scenery that dominates this book. Without giving away too much, the places we visit here are the titular bookstore and the aforementioned Google HQ (which, from what I know about Google, seems pretty accurate and definitely believable), but also the offices of a secret society in the middle of New York, a museum dedicated to the science and history of knitting, a city inside a San Francisco apartment, and a subterranean storage facility that contains historical treasures that can’t fit into any above-ground museums. Each is described in beautiful, hypnotic, dazzling detail. I just want to get up and go and find these places.

It’s a book in which the old technology of books and printing presses mixes seemlessly with the modern world of WiFi and Kindles, where the two forms must combine forces and work together to solve the unsolvable. It is a book for anyone deeply passionate about books, but also anyone with a deep fascination for the future of technology, or even the Internet itself, or design! Actually, this is one of those books that I dare anyone not to love.

The right book exactly, at exactly the right time.