“Breakfast With The Borgias” by D. B. C. Pierre (2014)

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“Technology is the way, the truth and the life.”

I was probably attracted to this book by the title. Although I really don’t know very much about the Borgias, as a family dynasty I find them oddly magnetic, and most of that is due to their bloodthirsty reputation that has passed down through the centuries. A rotten lot; the father bribed his way to become Pope, his son was the real life version of Machiavelli’s Prince, and his daughter was famous as a poisoner. And yet they still all seem to be slightly more pleasant than the characters herein.

Zeva Neely is stood on a train platform in Amsterdam, waiting for the arrival of her teacher and lover, Ariel Panek. When he doesn’t show, and makes no attempt to get in touch with her to explain his lateness, she begins to worry, but has no choice but to make her way to the hotel. Ariel, meanwhile, is stuck in a taxi in Suffolk, on his way to a guesthouse. The fog has enveloped Britain so thickly that planes are all grounded and he’s going to have to spend the night in The Cliffs Hotel, the only place for miles around.

Once there, Ariel is still unable to get any phone signal and has to ask the other residents of the hotel whether he can borrow their phone. But the family present here, the Borders, are there to acknowledge a death in the family, and they make for a very odd bunch. Margot is confined to a wheelchair and has the air of a Hollywood starlet. Leonard is convinced that his plan to turn his pub into a working museum will be a success. Jack is glued to his game console. Olivia is young, beautiful and broken, but seems more sane than anyone else in the building.

But it’s only when Ariel meets Gretchen that he realises something is really wrong about this place. He has to get out, and fast.

Billed as a horror novel as part of the Hammer portfolio of novels to compete with the classic “Hammer horror” films, I’ve first got to say that the book lacks any real sense of what it’s clearly going for. I’ve tagged it appropriately to be kind, but while there are several words I could use to describe it – “creepy”, “claustrophobic”, “commonplace” – I’d never really consider this a horror novel. Actually, truth be told I hadn’t even realised it was until I got to the end.

The twists are signposted so much that when they arrive there’s not so much a sense of shock and release of tense build-up as a shrug which makes you go, “Yeah, obviously.” I wrote a short story myself a couple of years ago (not one that has ever troubled a publisher, mind) which had a weirdly similar premise, involving a man lost in the wilderness and finding himself in the only inhabited place for miles around. Although the endings were starkly different, it wouldn’t have taken much to have given either of these the other ending.

The trouble is that to make a book really ramp up the drama, you have to give a shit about the main characters and feel their jeopardy as you go. As it is, Ariel isn’t an especially engaging protagonist. The first chapter isn’t even from his point of view, and by the end of that I’d already decided I didn’t like him. He’s also partial to declaring what twists are happening, leaving the reader with no chance to work things out for themselves.

It’s an interesting idea, but executed poorly. Sinister environments, creepy characters but lacking any real tension.

“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.

“Rule 34” by Charles Stross (2011)

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rule 34“It’s a slow Tuesday afternoon, and you’re coming to the end of your shift on the West End control desk when Sergeant McDougall IMs you: INSPECTOR WANTED ON FATACC SCENE.”

Last week, my colleague was flabberghasted that I’d managed to read a 360-odd page book in three days, which seems about fine to me. However, it’s now taken me nine days to read a book of pretty much the same length. It wasn’t that I was much busier or anything, but it just goes to show the difference that it can make when you’re enjoying a book and when you’re not. As you may surmise from that, here comes another bad review.

Rule 34 is a novel set about twenty minutes into the future in an independent Scotland where self-driving cars are commonplace, nanotechnology is being perfected, everyone wears what basically amount to advanced Google glasses constantly instead of using phones or computers, and a series of spammers are being found dead in strange incidents involving faulty appliances.

Liz Kavanaugh is the police officer who has to work out the link between this series of deaths, a former offender who is now apparently the diplomatic consul for the new county Issyk-Kulistan, and the strange man John Christie who keeps turning up where he really shouldn’t be, and might know more than he lets on. The plot is a crime novel, dealing with officers, victims and suspects alike, tying their stories up together in a Gordian Knot of a mess.

Frankly that’s about all I can tell you about the plot. There’s also some dodgy stuff here about paedophilia, a dash of cyberpunk, and a lot about AI and at what point its intelligence stops being artificial. Otherwise, I’m stumped. The novel jumps about too quickly and doesn’t give you much time to breathe or keep up. I did read that this is a loose sequel to another Stross book, and perhaps if I’d read that first, I’d understand more of what was going on here, but I’m not sure. The cyberpunk and future-tech elements are interesting but barely elaborated upon, instead giving over long passages to details that obviously mean a great deal to the characters but not to me.

The book is written in second person, too, which is an unusual and brave choice, and I would imagine would be successful as a tool if used correctly here. While it is consistent, it neither adds or detracts anything to the story here, merely blending the main characters (there are around eight or nine characters that are described as “you” at one point or another) and not allowing them to speak in their own voices and differenciate themselves enough. The first chapters are heavy on Scottish dialect and accent, using slang from north of the border, but Stross quickly seems to tire of it, resorting to a few words here and there, and then remembering about it towards the end again. Like the events in the book, it’s messy, disjointed and didn’t do anything for me.

According to other reviews I’ve read, it seems to have had a generally positive reception. A sequel was planned but later cancelled when Stross claimed that it was all becoming too real to be considered fiction and the next part didn’t need to be told. I’ve never read Stross before and I don’t know if all of his stuff is like this, but I found myself ploughing through hoping that it got better. Most distressingly of all, at the end of the book is the opening chapter of Intrusion by Ken MacLeod, which I reviewed a few months ago. The chapter begins by insisting that if you loved Rule 34, you’ll love Intrusion. As it is, I loved Intrusion, but was deeply underwhelmed by Rule 34, which had a surprising amount of potential but felt wasted.

If you like cyberpunk, and you like looking at the terrifying implications of modern technology and the direction it’s taking, then by all means have a look, but I can’t recommend the book en masse.

“Intrusion” by Ken MacLeod (2012)

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Open wide.

Open wide.

“Like any responsible father, Hugh Morrison had installed cameras in every room in the flat.”

Given the current state of the world where sexism seems at an all time high, wars are still fought repeatedly, people are being sentenced to death for the simple act of loving “the wrong person”, and in Europe, most countries have politically taken a big swing to the right, dystopian fiction has become something that it didn’t seem worth reading. I always wanted to write a dystopian novel but, since we’re now apparently living in one, what’s the fucking point? Anyway, I put aside those feelings for long enough to read Intrusion, and I’m pretty glad I did.

Intrusion is set in the near future (how near is discussed below) and is the story of Hope and Hugh Morrison, an ordinary London couple in many respects. However, in this future, there is a pill women take while pregnant called the Fix, which will strengthen the genome of their children and provide them with immunity to most diseases. Hope doesn’t want to take the pill – her first son Nick doesn’t seem to have been held back too much without it – but there is enormous pressure on her to do it anyway.

The Fix is not compulsory, but the winds are changing and it could be seen by some as child abuse to not give your unborn child a headstart in life. Some people can refuse it for religious reasons (although most of the major religions have no problem with it) but Hope won’t give her reasons and refuses to lie – she just doesn’t want it. This decision begins to divide her family and friends, and soon she, Hugh and Nick are all in terrible danger.

Alongside her story, we have her husband Hugh who has frequent hallucinations, people walking through his life that no one else can see, and a social scientist Geena, who thinks she may have found a reason to make sure Hope doesn’t have to take the Fix after all. When the government gets involved, the Morrisons have little choice but to start running, but in this future where everyone is tracked and watched at all times, that’s far easier said than done.

The most important and interesting question about anything set in the future is the simple, “So what is the world like now?” In this future, all information is conveyed via mobile phones or glasses (like Google glasses), hard copy books are a status symbol, rather than anything people actually read, the world seems at war with India and Russia, the Labour party is in power, vehicles are mostly silent and usually self-driving, there’s snow in summer, and science has made a breakthrough that has allowed for synthetic carbon, meaning that oil and diamonds are plentiful (diamond has replaced glass as the choice material for windows and the like), and even the trees are synthetic.

All of this in turn brings about the question, “When is this set?” No specific dates are ever given, but I would suggest we’re somewhere between 2060 and 2100. It’s very hard to say. Technology is very advanced (the glasses Hope wears tag everyone and every building she passes, display flight numbers next to aeroplanes and record everything the wearer sees) but it is all technology that is currently in production. None of the characters seem surprised by it, suggesting that it’s been commonplace since they were born. In fact, it’s mentioned that some people have traded in their glasses for contacts that do the same thing.

It’s a terrifying future for women, in this world, too. Legislation and laws have changed to make it a crime for any pregnant woman to smoke or drink, and all women of child-bearing age wear a monitor ring on their wedding finger that tracks their environment and lets health experts know if they are in dangerous environments. These laws have since expanded and now women are mostly forced back into positions of homemaker, most workplaces having been declared too dangerous for them, what with second hand smoke and easy access to coffee. This future is a very bad time to be a woman.

I liked Hope, and I liked Hugh, and for the most part the story trundles along quite nicely, shades of 1984 about it, as can only be expected in a world where cameras line the walls of your home. Towards the end, however, MacLeod seems to run out of steam and the whole thing ends with a rather disappointing deus ex machina. The story would be interesting enough, however, without Hugh’s hallucination issue as well, as it turns out he might actually be seeing the future due to a glitch in his genome. It adds a touch of fantasy to an otherwise realistic world, but I don’t know if it was strictly necessary. It seems strange somehow, although it does allow MacLeod to explore a new line of questioning against the Fix.

The best thing about the book, though, is probably just how worryingly realistic it all is. This is a future that, if we don’t pay attention now and make the wrong move in the next few years, may well come to pass. The best dystopias are ones in which we see something that is likely, rather than something far removed from us. This could be sixty years away, but it could be six. And it doesn’t look pretty.