Saturday, December 28, 2013

Our Potential Virtual Worlds

A couple of takes on the near-future as the virtual world becomes just a little more real than the real world. Although neither is a total nightmare, both are just disturbing enough to make you rethink your online life.

More Than This by Patrick Ness
(Candlewick Press, 2013)
Format: hardback via library

From Goodreads: "A boy named Seth drowns, desperate and alone in his final moments, losing his life as the pounding sea claims him. But then he wakes. He is naked, thirsty, starving. But alive. How is that possible? He remembers dying, his bones breaking, his skull dashed upon the rocks. So how is he here? And where is this place? It looks like the suburban English town where he lived as a child, before an unthinkable tragedy happened and his family moved to America. But the neighborhood around his old house is overgrown, covered in dust, and completely abandoned. What’s going on? And why is it that whenever he closes his eyes, he falls prey to vivid, agonizing memories that seem more real than the world around him? Seth begins a search for answers, hoping that he might not be alone, that this might not be the hell he fears it to be, that there might be more than just this. . . "

After the Chaos Walking trilogy, I expect the following from Ness: boys on the brink of manhood, thrown into the deep end of a world that is not what they thought they knew, navigating it with the help of well-met new companions. More Than This delivers it all, though in an alternate present (or near-future, perhaps) rather than on another world. Seth wakes in his deserted childhood hometown after drowning a continent away, and his mysterious solitude is no more explicable once he finally meets some fellow recently-departed teens. As he struggles with the traumatic memories of his life, this post-life world is sometimes hell and sometimes just a mystery, until it turns out that reality and life were not at all what he, or perhaps anyone, expected. 

The Circle by Dave Eggers
(Knopf / Random House Audio, 2013) 
Format: audio via library (narrated by Dion Graham)

From Goodreads: "When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in America—even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public. What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge."

Here's a fun thing: think of all the online stuff you do - social, financial, recreational - and imagine it was all bound up in one identity. One username - a real one, tied to your government ID and banking info - one password, everything linked so you can chat about a product and buy it from one place, and the fact that you can't hide behind an anonymous sobriquet means there aren't trolls 'ruining' the conversation. Sounds convenient, until you put it all in the hands of someone with a brain like Eggers's, and then all the Ways It Could Go Wrong build, slowly at first, a little from one side and a little from another, until suddenly: yikes. Sure, high-res cameras to show the surf conditions! and make them little and cheap so they can be hidden in political hot-spots and catch para-militants in action! or, maybe in your elderly mom's kitchen so you can ensure she's taking her pills! Never mind that, just as you can access your friend's beach camera, she can also access the one trained on your mom. It's totally fine. 

Mae is an interesting character, accessible but infuriating - zigging when I wanted her to zag. Of course, those zigs are what allow Eggers to push her deeper and deeper into the Circle's world, unwitting though she sometimes is, and make the unfathomable seem almost reasonable. I willed her to just snap out of it long before I gave up on her, but her unwillingness - or inability - to untangle her life from the Circle was creepily effective and thought-provoking. 

Dion Graham grabbed ahold of the tone of this book, sounding placid and accessible and assured as he moved inexorably forward, allowing just a hint of menace to steal in even as Mae, blindly trusting, removed every filter between herself and the entire online world. He could be giving a wildly successful TED talk, and everyone would want to share and replay, spreading his message across the globe.

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