Being a shallow sort, I was lured into picking this book off the shelves by the sheer elegance of the cover (kudos to Snow Books for this outstanding effort, by the way…) and was rewarded by discovering an unexpectedly thought provoking treatment that will – I feel – be with me for longer than usual. This near-future literary thriller is remarkably prescient, given its attack on corporate aspirations and thinking, as it was published in 2007, well before the series of grubby scandals that rocked the banking world.
A police helicopter hovers above Hackney. Snipers surround the siege house. Fascinated, Nelson edges forward to watch the advance of the negotiator: a robot, uncannily tall and serene, designed to empathise with the despair that has turned a bitter executive into a cornered gunman. But the robot is too late; an explosion engulfs the house. As Nelson watches the burning machine burst out onto his street, he realises that the world has shifted beneath his feet; a strange and unexpected future has arrived on his doorstep.
Welcome to the adventures of young father Nelson Millar and his friend and manic poet Raymond Chase in the imminent technologies of tomorrow. Nelson unwillingly works on a project that threatens the nature of democracy, the simulation of a town and its citizens to create the ultimate focus group. Meanwhile, Raymond is hired to assist the mysterious Red Men, digital copies of the rich and powerful whose vile appetites and hatred for real life soon lead to murder.
Firstly a health warning – the initial chirpy tone and thread of black humour running through this book gets steadily darker. It is compelling, clever and terrifyingly plausible. It is also savagely violent. As a sharp and accomplished writer, de Abaitua is completely capable of delivering a nuanced, satirical take on the subject. For instance, it is Nelson Millar’s determination to provide a steady income for his young family that sucks him into working for Monad – not his earlier freewheeling ‘creative’ days working as editor for the magazine Drug Porn… While the technological details, such as the robots, Dr Easy and Dr Hard, are enjoyable – it is de Abaitua’s pinsharp observations of human nature that make this an uncomfortably standout read for me.
The impact on Nelson of being subsumed into corporate life, while forced to spend long periods apart from his wife and child, rings all too true in a world where families have to face these dilemmas on a daily basis. He has the stunning misfortune to have to deal with a number of executives who could all be labelled as ‘the boss from Hell’, from the charismatic figurehead, Hermes Spence, to Stoker Senior whose testicle transplant is an attempt to keep himself ever-young and virile – and his immediate superior, and the bullying Morton Eakins. Not to mention the unspeakably horrible Red Man, Morty…
Any grumbles? I’m not a fan of the limited omniscient viewpoint and there were times that I felt hopping between viewpoints in the same scene compromised the degree to which I identified with the characters. While I fully concede that Nelson managed to still bounce off the pages, Raymond’s character seemed particularly undermined by this treatment and at times, I found myself skimming the scenes which featured him to get back to Nelson… Given de Abaitua’s evident skill, I do think that this is an avoidable glitch.
Other than that, though, I think this book is a powerful glimpse into some of the possible dangers that our children may face. And as a cautionary tale about how the corporate ethos can pervert and twist the best-intentioned objectives, it is chillingly accurate. It should be required reading for all Bob Diamond and all his cronies…