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Tech-22 – ‘Zed’

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Speculative fiction is at its best when it has something to say. From the very beginning, sci-fi has used its trappings to examine and explore the (sometimes harsh) realities of the real world. It reflects and refracts, commenting on where we are and where we might be going.

We live in a world where technology is ubiquitous and a handful of people sit in control of the vast majority of the resources behind that technology. Those people, perhaps more than any elected official, are the ones who hold our societal destiny in their hands. But as we grow ever more reliant on the various forms of tech to live our daily lives, as it infiltrates every aspect of our everyday existence, we must ask ourselves – what happens if those people lose control? What happens if this omnipresent technology stops working the way it is supposed to?

That’s where Joanna Kavenna’s “Zed” (Doubleday, $27.95) takes us. This darkly comic dystopian novel imagines a world not too different from our own, a near-future in which a single company has risen to the top of the food chain and extended its influence into every aspect of society. This company provides the technology on which seemingly the entire world runs. And something’s wrong…

With a biting wit and a discomfiting plausibility, “Zed” offers up a portrait of what might happen if everything – and I do mean EVERYTHING – was dictated by algorithmic whims … and what happens if those algorithms should start to crumble, leaving those at the top to make panicked choices aimed more at protecting themselves than the world around them.

The tech company Beetle has become ubiquitous, an omnipresence in the lives of almost everyone in the Western world. They provide the wrist-worn BeetleBands that monitor the health and well-being of the wearer 24/7. They developed the Veeps (Very Intelligent Personal Assistants), AIs that have become indispensably intertwined with the world. Their cryptocurrency – BeetleBits – have become the de facto currency. And their predictive algorithms are purported to be so powerful and precise that they have developed what they call “lifechains,” a method of predicting future behavior so accurate that they have become vital and unassailable parts of the justice system.

Now, you don’t HAVE to work for Beetle or engage with Beetle’s products or deal in BeetleBits. Beetle and its founder Guy Matthias are strong believers in free will; you’re perfectly free to be jobless and homeless and penniless. You have that choice.

Douglas Varley is one of the senior members of the Beetle team, in charge of the predictive algorithms that generate the lifechains. His gentle and constant adjustment keeps them chugging along, churning out accurate predictions about the paths taken by literally every person in the system. The algorithms are perfect, flawless.

And then a man named George Mann, without any indication from his lifechain, walks out of work, throws his BeetleBand into the sea and goes home to murder his family.

This event – absent from any realm of probability produced by the algorithm – is an anomaly. And there’s no room for anomalies; the unwavering accuracy of the lifechain is the foundation for everything that Beetle does. If that proves capable of producing inaccuracy, it all comes tumbling down.

Mann’s crime is classified as the fault of human error – how could it be anything else? The algorithm is perfect, after all. But when an autonomous robot sent to take him into custody winds up killing an unrelated person named Lester Bigman for nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time while superficially resembling George Mann, things begin to spiral out of control.

As things spiral, the notion of “Zed” events – unpredictable variables introduced by the presence of human beings in the system – is hatched. Matthias demands that Beetle find ways to rein in these Zed events, but it isn’t long before Zed is everywhere.

And there are those who find ways to exist outside the seemingly-closed system, who live their lives apart largely apart from Beetle’s ubiquity … and they have agendas of their own.

There’s a dark absurdity at the heart of “Zed” that is reminiscent of Kafka or Pynchon, a sense of being trapped within an unfeeling system that is itself trapped by its own crumbling omnipresence. It’s a world in which the trust people place in the powers that be is rewarded with a complete disregard for their well-being on the part of those powers. It is a bleak portrait painted here. And a hilarious one. Call it a black comedy of errors, a techno-farce in which mounting misfires on the part of the centralized technology are met with little more than cosmetic changes and brandspeak. It’s a comic look at faith in the establishment gone wrong.

Kavenna’s wit is almost as omnipresent as Beetle in this book; every page offers a wry observation or dark joke that sticks in the mind’s eye. Her prose is smart and propulsive, giving her storytelling a sense of urgency even as the techno-bureaucracy spins its wheels in mud of its own making. It’s a rendition of end-game capitalism that feels unsettlingly prescient even as it makes you laugh.

“Zed” is an exceptional book, a novel of ideas that embraces the thoughts that it provokes while also delivering legitimate laughs. It’s funny and frightening, an unrelenting and sly satiric look at a world that feels like somewhere we could legitimately find ourselves sooner than we think.

Last modified on Wednesday, 22 January 2020 09:16

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