Self-anointed guru of the Digital Age, Guy Matthias, CEO of Beetle, has become one of the world's most powerful and influential figures. Untaxed and ungoverned, his trans-Atlantic company essentially operates beyond the control of Governments or the law.But trouble is never far away, and for Guy a perfect storm is brewing: his wife wants to leave him, fed up with his serial infidelities; malfunctioning Beetle software has led to some unfortunate deaths which are proving hard to cover up; his longed for deal with China is proving troublingly elusive and, among other things, the mystery hacker, Gogol, is on his trail.With the clock ticking- Guy, his aide Douglas Varley, Britain's flailing female PM, conflicted national security agent Eloise Jayne, depressed journalist David Strachey, and Gogol, whoever that may be - the question is becoming ever more pressing, how do you live in reality when nobody knows anything, and all knowledge, all certainty, is partly or entirely fake?
- January 1, 1970HughJoanna Kavenna is becoming one of my favourite writers - her four previous novels (Inglorious, The Birth of Love, Come to the Edge and A Field Guide to Reality) are all intelligent and interesting in different ways, and her writing is often very funny. I must admit that I was a little nervous when I heard that her latest book was a dystopian fiction set in the near future, as this genre is not normally one that appeals to me as a reader. When I was offered a chance to read an uncorrected proof c Joanna Kavenna is becoming one of my favourite writers - her four previous novels (Inglorious, The Birth of Love, Come to the Edge and A Field Guide to Reality) are all intelligent and interesting in different ways, and her writing is often very funny. I must admit that I was a little nervous when I heard that her latest book was a dystopian fiction set in the near future, as this genre is not normally one that appeals to me as a reader. When I was offered a chance to read an uncorrected proof copy by a friendly local bookshop, I couldn't resist it. Kavenna's imaginative vision is impressive, and the book is funny, clever, brilliantly realised and full of interesting philosophical ideas, but never loses track of the human (and often feminine) values at its core.The Britain of the novel is dominated both socially and politically by Beetle, a mega-corporation that embodies all of the most rapacious features of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft (to name just five). They have monopoly control of almost all aspects of life - their cryptocurrency is the only remaining legal currency, to earn it you need to work for them, and to work for them you need to wear a Beetleband, which monitors everything you do and contains a Veep (or VIPA - very intelligent personal assistant), and they also control the apparatus of state security via their network of security cameras and robotic policemen (ANTs). Each person has an associated life-chain, computed by an algorithm, which predicts all of their important decisions and fates, and the law now makes a prediction of future criminal behaviour an offence in its own right.The Beetle brand is owned by Guy Matthias, who sees himself as an idealistic visionary, and his project as essentially benevolent. However his personal life is messy - his wife is tired of his philandering and he uses lifechains to model his one night stands with a succession of brilliant young women. His internal communication system is conducted via Boardroom, a virtual reality system in which avatars meet in virtual rooms.The book is full of dark humour, and Kavenna clearly had great fun inventing the terminology, acronyms and the names of the Veeps, which are full of allusions. The Veeps conversations are also very entertaining, as they often fail to see the sense of a word and spout irrelevant history.The world of Beetle is disturbed when a man gets drunk and murders his wife and children. This has not been predicted by any of his lifechains, and the event is categorised as a Zed event. His arrest is bungled, resulting in an innocent man being murdered by an ANT, and the consequential chain of chaos threatens to destabilise the company, which effectively declares war on Zed events and creates its own simplified language Bespoke, making it mandatory for all interfaces with Beetle technology and resulting in more comedy of misunderstanding. There is also a human element to the destruction, as a group of maverick scientists succeed in building a new type of supercomputer which can hack Beetle's encryption system, and much of the second half of the book explores the chaos that ensues.The book is not by any means perfect - there are many ideas at play and some of these require digressive explanations, but I found the whole thing compulsively readable and at times laugh out loud funny, and it certainly made me think about many elements of our society, the forces that control it and what it means to be human. I really hope this book will find a wider readership.more
- January 1, 1970Blair(3.5, maybe?) It's difficult to rate this. It reminded me most of my experience with Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers: a book I hated at first, and continued to find frustrating throughout, but ended up loving, and now regard as one of the greatest novels the 21st century has yet produced. (There are also superficial similarities in the books' plots, for example chunks of the story being focused on a powerful tech mogul.) I'm not sure I can quite place Zed in the masterpiece category, but it's far (3.5, maybe?) It's difficult to rate this. It reminded me most of my experience with Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers: a book I hated at first, and continued to find frustrating throughout, but ended up loving, and now regard as one of the greatest novels the 21st century has yet produced. (There are also superficial similarities in the books' plots, for example chunks of the story being focused on a powerful tech mogul.) I'm not sure I can quite place Zed in the masterpiece category, but it's far more interesting than a middling star rating might suggest.Reading between the lines, I think Zed must have been through some serious rewrites. When first announced, it focused on some of the same characters, but was set in 1999 and titled Tomorrow; it's since been significantly pushed back from its original release date of May 2018. Even now, a week before publication, there are noticeable differences between the blurb and the version I read. (For example, two of the characters referenced in the current blurb – the female PM and the hacker named Gogol – are only mentioned a handful of times in the book.) I perhaps ought to add a disclaimer that what I'm reviewing here may not be what appears in print.With all that out of the way: the version I read is set in the near(ish?) future. Beetle, an enormous corporation whose closest real-world analogue is probably Amazon, dominates technology, employment and justice. The main characters are its CEO, Guy Matthias; his right-hand man, Douglas Varley; their 'Veeps', virtual personal assistants, who are sometimes embodied and sometimes not; Eloise Jayne, a senior anti-terrorism officer; and David Strachey, a newspaper editor. There's also a dissident who goes by many names, but is most often known as Bel Ami. The society these characters inhabit is founded on the idea that technology can reliably predict human behaviour. The plot – such as it is – deals with what becomes of such a society when humans suddenly start being dangerously unpredictable. This collapse is blamed on a factor known as 'Zed'; the term is a stand-in for 'human decoherence'. It took me perhaps 80 pages to feel I'd made any sort of connection with the narrative. I was going to say that Zed is not an immediately engaging book, but that's not strictly true – it has entertaining details from the start. (The names of the Veeps never failed to raise a smile.) It's the plot that never quite seems to get going. The whole story feels like a tug-of-war: on one side there's a meandering philosophical/satirical account of a bunch of lost, lonely people, and on the other, the sense that someone's been trying their best to mould it into a plot-driven tech thriller.The result is certainly enjoyable, yet somewhat muddled. This is a book which has clear undercurrents of brilliance, more intellect and imagination than whole swathes of current fiction, but is often sluggish, and mildly unsatisfying as a whole.I received an advance review copy of Zed from the publisher through NetGalley.TinyLetter | Twitter | Instagram | Tumblrmore
- January 1, 1970AdamJoanna Kavenna’s Zed is a pitch-dark comedy about an Orwellian future where Big Brother is not only watching but controls every aspect of society. Imagine if Google merged with the NSA, CIA, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, as well as owned almost every media channel and newspaper in the country. This is Beetle. Everything is constantly filmed, everyone is forced to wear a smartwatch that kept telling you what to do, your refrigerator tries to control what you eat, and personal assistants called Vee Joanna Kavenna’s Zed is a pitch-dark comedy about an Orwellian future where Big Brother is not only watching but controls every aspect of society. Imagine if Google merged with the NSA, CIA, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, as well as owned almost every media channel and newspaper in the country. This is Beetle. Everything is constantly filmed, everyone is forced to wear a smartwatch that kept telling you what to do, your refrigerator tries to control what you eat, and personal assistants called Veeps–an A.I. comparable to a super-advanced Alexa--monitors you and reports everything to Beetle. The dominant form of money is a cryptocurrency created and maintained by Beetle, and around 90% of the population works for the company, or a subsidiary of it. If something negative were to befall the company, then the public would never hear about it. Why? Well, it would be a matter of national security, as the issue would have to be first treated as a potential terrorist threat. And the good of society must come first, of course! Keep in mind, there’s freedom of choice. This is a free society, after all. No one is forced use Beetle’s technology. It’s just that they would be labeled unverified, so they wouldn’t have access to any Beetle jobs. Or transportation. Or money. But its their choice! Nightmarish, right? That’s not the worst part. The company has developed something called a lifechain, which is series of algorithms that predicts all possibilities of what a person might do on any given day. Probabilities are calculated with these lifechains and they are so accurate that Beetle has been able to influence the government to enact a law to “pre-arrest” someone before they commit a crime. The lifechain says they’re going to, so why wait until they do it? This saves everyone lots of time and grief! (This theme also appears in Philip K Dick’s short story, “Minority Report.”) Beetle has also invented ANT’s, which are headless droids, armed with guns, who are perfectly programmed to arrest and secure their targets, and in no way can anything go wrong, since lifechains and Beetle’s AI are perfect. What a perfect society! Guy Matthias, the head of Beetle, just keeps making society better and better! Citizen’s faces have become completely blank over the years so as not to express any kind of feeling in front of cameras or machines, and Guy is so proud that citizens are now able to live in a society without offending anyone!But, what’s this? Something starts to go wrong. The lifechain seems to have some errors. People commit horrible crimes without the lifechain predicting them. ANT’s start shooting innocents without provocation. Since the AI’s and lifechains are perfectly programmed, then it all must be attributed to human error, of course. Despite Beetle’s efforts, this error gap between perfection and reality starts to widen. This gap is called Zed, named after the last letter of the alphabet, representing all things that don’t quite fit within every paradigm. Undefinable, unquantifiable things, things that shouldn’t be. And Zed keeps getting bigger. Kavenna’s wry wit shines throughout the story; the humor is both sharp and depressing as it feels like some form of this future isn’t far off from becoming a reality. We view this society through the lens of several different characters: the head of Beetle, the nervous lackey, a tech-hating employee who sees through all the bullshit, a top newspaper reporter, a protesting citizen, and various A.I. Veeps. One of the most humorous and depressingly real scenarios is the adoption of something called Bespoke. Guy Matthias, the head of Beetle, was once part of a conversation where someone much smarter than him was using words that he didn’t understand. In response, he now wants to make communication simple enough for everyone to understand, so he invents a system that dumbs down vocabulary into fewer phrases to make it easier for everyone to communicate. It’s hilarious and frightening and hits too close for comfort. Zed is a satirical comedy of errors, hilarious and poignant and horrifyingly relevant. It is an extreme example of the direction our larger companies, government, and privacy laws are headed, and if left unchecked, it could lead to some form what this book portrays. Even if you just take this story at face value, it is still an entertaining, intelligent, and thoughtful read. ARC via NetGalley. Zed is being published by Doubleday Books and will be released on January 14, 2020.8.0 / 10more
- January 1, 1970CJDammit! Tricked by cover porn. Look at that cover, it is gorgeous! It has a very intriguing premise, but was let down by the execution. It reads like an early draft. A few more rounds of revising and editing could elevate this story into a masterpiece. I did read an early copy so hopefully some of the issues I had with it were resolved before release.It is a satirical look at determinism vs free will in the digital age and tech giants profiting from the subjection of humanity. In the not too dis Dammit! Tricked by cover porn. Look at that cover, it is gorgeous! It has a very intriguing premise, but was let down by the execution. It reads like an early draft. A few more rounds of revising and editing could elevate this story into a masterpiece. I did read an early copy so hopefully some of the issues I had with it were resolved before release.It is a satirical look at determinism vs free will in the digital age and tech giants profiting from the subjection of humanity. In the not too distant future, societies are surreptitiously controlled by a monopoly of tech giants whose tech and AI are based on the theory: humans have free will but they are predictable. It is a precursor to an Orwellian society as people still have a choice to opt into the Predictive Lifechain, but if they don't they are manipulated or coerced into it or shunned by society as there is no data to verify they are a trustworthy citizen. Beetle is the largest and most influential of these mega-corps, and its tech is deeply ingrained in society. Guy Matthias, a philanthropist and CEO of Beetle, is an odious vile man who publicly believes the use of his deterministic AI platform to control the population creates a safe and stable utopia. However, privately, it is a tool for him to avoid responsibility and accountability for his and the company's actions, further his political agendas and petty vendettas against anyone who disagrees with him, and mine for successful hookups.This one was a struggle to finish. Initially the balance between the world building and plot was off with paragraphs of info-dumps unexpectedly popping up. While the plot improved and was interesting, there are too many ideas crammed in and it becomes a muddled incoherent mess ... and that is before it introduces the Bespoke Beetlespeak language. Often it felt like it was written by a robot with the info-dumps being contrary and contradictory, for example: "These tiny things are called qubits. If it helps, then think of them as imaginary spheres. If it doesn't help, then don't. A qubit is not what we imagine and yet it is. It is anything we would like, and yet all things at the same time. This makes it an improbably flexible basis for computing.""Nothing you are told is real. Remember this, until we tell you that something you are being told is real. Actually, the thing we are telling you, that nothing you are told is real, is actually real. That thing is real, about nothing being real. Just that thing though and nothing else. Is that clear?" Ended up skim reading the last few chapters. It was like the author didn't know how to wrap up the story after the climax.Thank you to Netgalley and the publishers for the ARC.more
- January 1, 1970PaulI’m sat here writing this review on my notebook PC while my smartphone randomly provides new music based on previous choices I’ve made. Meanwhile, my smartwatch feeds me a constant stream of various e-mails and alerts. Technology is just super convenient isn’t it? That idea that everything you could ever want, or need, is available at the touch of a button is a real lifesaver. If you think about it though, it’s also mildly disturbing. Spotify and Amazon aren’t just giving me what I want anymore, I’m sat here writing this review on my notebook PC while my smartphone randomly provides new music based on previous choices I’ve made. Meanwhile, my smartwatch feeds me a constant stream of various e-mails and alerts. Technology is just super convenient isn’t it? That idea that everything you could ever want, or need, is available at the touch of a button is a real lifesaver. If you think about it though, it’s also mildly disturbing. Spotify and Amazon aren’t just giving me what I want anymore, they are telling me what I should want. When you look at it that way, it suddenly becomes a bit more invasive doesn’t. My choices are no longer determined by me.Zed by Joanna Kavenna, is a wry look at how technology has the ability to help but also frequently hinder when it comes to leading a modern life.Guy Matthias is a particularly intriguing character. The CEO of Beetle is such a jumble of conflicting emotions, addictions and neuroses that it’s no surprise he craves order in all things. Matthias worships at the altar of technology. In his eyes, it holds the answer to all things. Using his software, Matthias believes every potential action of a human can be predicted, and if it can be predicted, then rules can be imposed. Flawless models of behaviour can be designed, and uncertainty becomes a thing of the past. It all sounds terribly sensible and within reasonable parameters but, of course, humans are far too chaotic for that sort structure to be implemented easily. Life is gloriously messy, bringing order from chaos is not an easy thing for anyone to do.As Matthias seeks out a sleek, easily manageable answer to his various conundrums, we get to follow various people as they attempt to navigate the pitfalls of this new technological utopia. Can a security officer do her job effectively when partnered with autonomous machines that are supposedly incapable of making mistakes, but frequently do? Is the press still free when every newspaper is owned by the company they may want to investigate? Is it possible to live a life outside the confines of the omnipresent world-spanning conglomerate that is Beetle or is bowing to the corporate machine inevitable? It quickly becomes obvious that every facet of existence has a link to technology in one form or another.Events spiral further out of control as Matthias becomes more and more desperate to achieve his dreams. He attempts to simplify language replacing multiple words with a single alternative. The subtle nuances of communication may have been removed, but doesn’t that just make everything easier? I’ll give you a quick hint, the answer is a resounding no! Elsewhere, algorithms created at Beetle headquarters, designed by artificial intelligence, are used to offer subtle suggestions and insights into all decisions people make. Before you know it, things are starting to appear far more sinister than they were before. It’s all rather insidious.I’ll be the first to admit modern life can sometimes feel unnecessarily complicated. We have to wade through such a colossal morass of irrelevant minutiae every day that we never have the time to concentrate on the important details. We spend our time obsessively seeking the best deal on this or the latest version of that. Mass consumerism is the new religion and information drives the world. With each new technological advancement, it seems we willingly give away our freedoms and blindly accept comfy reassurance in return. Ok, I may be ranting a little here, but we’ve already seen the seeds of Beetle-esque changes on the horizon. Insurance companies are pondering the use of smart wearables to determine the best quotes for policies*. Smart fridges are able to re-order your weekly shop, track your calendar and keep an eye on your health. Zed does a great job of tapping into all these fears and following their threads to a logical conclusion.Joanne Kavenna’s latest novel is a pitch-black satire that unpicks the madness of the modern condition. How can technology and order be the answer to all of our woes when humanity is beautifully erratic and unpredictable even on a good day. I don’t dispute that technology can be life changing in many positive ways, I merely urge caution. The narrative in Zed eloquently illustrates this exact point.Witty, circular arguments and razor-sharp social commentary delight and inform throughout. This novel highlights, pretty convincingly, that the best way to undermine foolish notions is to eviscerate them in fiction. Humanity is, above all else, nonsensical and Zed quite happily proves that. I always enjoy a book that manages to be both funny and mildly terrifying in the same breath. I can heartily recommend Zed to anyone who has ever pondered where all their data goes when accepting the terms and conditions on a website. I suspect collecting “anonymous” statistics is only the start. Smart, darkly comic and genuinely thoughtful I enjoyed every page.*I have Google Fit on my watch. I’d imagine it won’t be long until I will have to submit the information it collects for some reason of another.more
- January 1, 1970Alan ShawI enjoyed some of this book and some of it I found a slog. The story begins well as a black and bleak comedy then loses its way, suddenly ups a gear and is almost exciting before simply fading away. The premise isn't particularly new - Big Bad Business and Big Bad Government collude in high-tech monitoring of everyone and everything for the usual ends of money power and control. It sometimes reminded me of Alena Graedon's The Word Exchange except that had heart - here the primary characters felt I enjoyed some of this book and some of it I found a slog. The story begins well as a black and bleak comedy then loses its way, suddenly ups a gear and is almost exciting before simply fading away. The premise isn't particularly new - Big Bad Business and Big Bad Government collude in high-tech monitoring of everyone and everything for the usual ends of money power and control. It sometimes reminded me of Alena Graedon's The Word Exchange except that had heart - here the primary characters felt for the most part just plot devices. The only one who seemed real and written with some feeling was Guy Matthias, particularly his Damascene moment about his estranged wife and family. As I mentioned, it all fizzles out rather unsatisfactorily but in and amongst there is some good writing and I will explore more of Ms Kavenna's work.more
- January 1, 1970MaryIt started well, a great concept and very witty. I want to know what the ending is, but I just don't want to read it any more. It seems to be going nowhere slowly.
- January 1, 1970Amber SherlockA terrifying and frankly, bizarre insight into an Orwellian future of total control, murderous AI and algorithms to predict crime. Corporate giants control all - how to live, think, act and pre-arrest any potential dissidents. A great concept, but the execution ultimately lets the book down slightly.more
- January 1, 1970AlexaThis was a DNF at around 23%. I enjoyed the writing style and the thought of a totally enterprise controlled society is intriguing, very Orwellian, but the pace was very slow, I was lost most of the time, and while I enjoyed some of the characters, they didn't stand out enough for me to continue with the story.more
- January 1, 1970SamA fun read in a dystopian way. Leans heavily on 1984 but none the worse for that. Darkly hilarious and all too believable a future of we get too sucked into Twit/Face/Goo/Zon. I was trying to think of a collective noun for the Big Tech but just came up with ‘Twitfaced’ - how one feels after posting rubbish on Social Media. Inspired me too re-read 1984 and now Brave New Worldmore
Write a review