Entertainment Books

Sunday 24 September 2017

Books: Stark vision of internet era ignores impact on outer 'Circle'

Fiction: The Circle Dave Eggers Hamish Hamilton, £18.99, 491 pages

David Annand

Of the major mainstream works of dystopian science fiction, the really scary ones are those that imagine a co-opted future rather than a coerced one. We can imagine a rebellion against Orwell's Inner Party, but it's a future like the one foretold in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World that really brings on the heebie-jeebies, because it's one we've bought into ourselves.

Which is precisely what happens in Dave Eggers's new novel, which imagines a future where the Circle -- an all-powerful internet behemoth -- has absorbed Google, Twitter, Facebook et al into its Unified Operating System; stripping users of the possibility of anonymity and creating a world of total transparency.

The narrative follows the ascent of idealistic young Mae Holland, newly employed in the Circle's Customer Experience department-- a plum job secured for her by college friend Annie, a member of the Circle's top-tier 'Gang of 40'. Eggers has a grand old time lampooning the campus with its singer-songwriters and Portuguese societies, stressing its fascistic joining-in mentality and its absurdly stratified hierarchies, but he over-eggs the earnest passive-aggressiveness, making the place too obviously awful. Which, anyway, is by the by. I'm less concerned with the few thousand people who work at the Circle than I am with the impact it has on the few billion who use it.

Too often the Circle introduces brilliant ideas (many of which could have been the basis for whole novels) but doesn't follow through on their impact on wider society and the nature of the compact that we, the consumers, have made with these companies -- not realising that if something's free, then we're the product.

There's something slightly off-note, too, about the book's tone. Sure, there is that baffling group of young men who camp out all night to be only the 13th person to download Snowdrop 7.4, but most of us aren't enthusiastic about this kind of stuff.

If we do end up as pawns of an omniscient machine, it won't be because we signed up, clear-eyed and zealous but because we wanted a discount on some yogurt, or something.

I suspect the sad truth is that we'll mooch, not march, into the digital future.

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

Irish Independent

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