Kira’s #CBR5 “Review” #45: The Circle, by Dave Eggers

circleAbout a quarter of the way into Dave Eggers’ new novel, Mae is summoned to the office of her immediate superior at The Circle. Mae’s presence has been requested at the behest of Alistair, a developer from another department who is peeved that Mae — after being sent three notices — failed to RSVP for or attend his brunch for staffers interested in Portugal. Her “non-participation,” a mortal sin in the world of The Circle, is grounds for a passive-aggressive tongue lashing from her boss, plus a note on record with HR. When it comes to “engagement,” The Circle don’t play.

As an Eggers fan and closet Luddite, the concept of The Circle appealed to me. The novel is set at a large tech company, whose efficient and superior services have come to dominate the Internet slash world. Mae, a 20-something desperate to escape her job at a local utility, is hired by The Circle on the recommendation of her friend Annie, who is a high-level executive there. Through Mae’s nascent and later significant experiences as a Circle employee, Eggers’ latest chronicles the company itself, a business darling whose thinly veiled aspirations of world domination are excused by its image as a benevolent superpower, intent on making the planet a better place. And while The Circle’s true motives are something of a narrative foil, they also – in the grand scheme of things – don’t entirely matter: Good intentions or bad, is there a point at which the price of omniscience is too high?

[FULL REVIEW]

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alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 41: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Goodreads’ incredibly short synopsis says: “In reality, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s CosoNostra Pizza Inc., but in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new computer virus that’s striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the neon-lit streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy virtual villain threatening to bring about infocalypse.”

Fellow Pajibans recommended this to me during the last Cannonball, when I related my disappointment with The Flame Alphabet (tie-in: language epidemics.) It was very interesting to read this book so shortly after Ready Player One, because both deal with immersion in virtual realities. I enjoyed having Cline’s version  in recent memory as I read Snow Crash, which, as a predecessor to Ready Player One and a sci-fi/cyberpunk classic in its own right, almost certainly had a huge influence on Cline’s work.

I really enjoyed Snow Crash. There is a lot about it that is kind of silly and fantastical, even for sci-fi, including a basically made-up version of neurolinguistics and quite a bit of would-be futuristic jargon. It’s a tough line to toe, when you’re writing near-future sci-fi, that you run the risk of dating yourself when you invent new terminology and describe specifics about plausible but not currently existing technologies. How much of what you describe actually comes to pass or still ring true? Tech and gadgetry are so ubiquitous that nearly every reader of a book like this will have some kind of experience with it; compare that to other popular sci-fi themes like bioengineering or space travel, where there are a lot fewer ‘experts’ that can critique the realism of the book. All of that is to say that one of the cyberpunk genre’s main themes focuses on common technologies and what possibilities can be extrapolated from that tech in the future, and because so many of us are familiar with that technology, it makes it very easy to nitpick areas where books like Snow Crash diverge from either current or probable reality.

If you’re not especially concerned with your sci-fi being at least somewhat grounded in science and fact, then those types of incongruities will matter very little. For its part, I think Snow Crash constructed a pretty believable virtual reality in the Metaverse, but I found the tie-ins with Sumerian myth to be a little fantastical and ambitious, particularly given the somewhat haphazard explanation of neurolinguistics that bears only a passing resemblance to the actual academic field. That aside, I really enjoyed the scope and execution of the story. The pacing was a little frenetic, but I wasn’t too bothered by it as it heightened the tension and served to underline the hectic nature of life and society itself in the world of the book. The protagonists were not much more developed than avatars in a video game, but particularly given the emphasis on virtual reality, it almost seems appropriate that the reader does experience the book in that video game sense. It’s probably not a book for everyone, but as an overall fan of sci-fi (with piqued interest in cyberpunk as of late) I liked it a lot.

Fofo’s #CBR5 Review #13-14: The Net Delusion and To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov

The Net DelusionTarget: Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: The Darkside of Internet Freedom and To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism

Profile: Non-Fiction, Technology, International Studies, Cultural Studies

This is going to be a very atypical review.  In reading The Net Delusion and Click Here, I was attempting to develop a cohesive personal position on the problems of internet advocacy.  There is a lot of literature and scholarly articles on the benefits of using the internet in the cause of advocacy, either as a method of raising awareness or as a means to a fundraising end, but there is very little in the way of criticism outside of the shallow critique of ‘Slacktivism.’  Morozov’s books offered a more cutting look at my subject area, but failed, by and large, to dig deeper or offer a cohesive alternative.  This is broadly true of both books, but is more apparent in Click Here.

To Save Everything Click HereBecause both books failed to meet my personal metric for usefulness, it is difficult for me to recommend them.  Even ignoring that, both books left me with a bad taste in my mouth, not because Morozov’s ideas are wrong or uninteresting, but because he is such a hostile author.  That hostility, directed against politicians, pundits, academics, and above all else the Techno-Literati of Silicon Valley, is an enormous barrier-to-entry for readers who haven’t already bought into Morozov’s aggressive architecture.  Again, Click Here is the worst offender, withThe Net Delusion appearing relatively calm and reasoned.  But let’s go ahead and get into the books.

Read the rest of the reviews here…

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #21: Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents by Ellen Ullman

I came to this short and savvy book because of two things: my favourite reading experience of last year was Andrew Smith’s Totally Wired: On the Trail of the Great Dotcom Swindle, an excellent book which was unjustly slept on after its release, and that led me to the documentary Coderush. Smith’s book is about how the internet was nurtured and embraced and exploited in the heady days of the late 90s, particularly focusing on New York’s Silicon Alley scene and visionary-nutbag-entrepreneur Josh Harris, and it got me started on the fascinating roaring 20s-like vibe of that era. Passionate weirdos making stuff that would ultimately change the way the world works, all funded by a precarious financial system where you could get very wealthy and very poor in the blink of an eye.

Browsing Metafiler I came across Coderush, which is another insight into that weird, wired world. There’s still surprisingly little cultural content about this time – someone at HBO, make a TV series about young idealists in the Bay area coding all night to make a new utopia/billion dollars, circa 1998 – and Coderush is fascinating. Some of the best bits come from Ellen Ullman, a former software engineer who worked for twenty years with computers and came to understand just how radical the changes they would bring could be.

Written in 1997, Close to the Machine is astounding to read today. Back then, computers and the internet were a niche interest. Now, they’re our interests, and shape our lives and identities. Ullman’s book is a memoir of her time adjusting to the changing tech landscape as an insider, and her reflections on things like work and systems (I know I’m being annoyingly vague here) are insightful and sometimes scary.

There’s more to it than that – this is not a diatribe against connectivity or the dangers of sexting; Ullman is an aging ex-Communist woman who starts sleeping with a young male ‘anarchocapatalist’, and their relationship is beautifully drawn.

I can’t recommend it enough – if you’re reading this on a computer, if you use one at work, if you’ve lived with the huge economic and social shifts of the last twenty years – this is a great read.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #5: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

As a newcomer to Neil Gaiman’s works, I found his American Gods mind-boggling in the literal sense of the word. When I finally turned the last page and put it down, I just sat there trying to figure out what it is I had just read—was it a good yarn filled with mythology, walking corpses, battles royale; was it a convoluted American road trip; was it a spoof of America by a Briton; was it a lament over the loss of faith in American society and/or a political commentary on the commercialization/”technification” of America? Given the iconic stature Gaiman’s novel has achieved in the past decade, I can only assume that it is all of the above.

American Gods is the story of Shadow, a very quiet, very big, very ordinary kind of a guy serving time for beating the crap of some fellow thieves and counting the days until he can be reunited with his beloved wife Laura.  He is released from prison early when Laura is killed in a car accident, and he goes back home to find nothing there for him—no family, no friend, no job, and the discovery that Laura had betrayed him with his best friend. So when a well-heeled grifter called Mr. Wednesday–who seems to know everything about Shadow–offers him undefined employment, he accepts. Shadow and Wednesday embark on a road trip of middle America (Gaiman mixes together real and fictional places, to keep us guessing), and little by little Shadow learns that Wednesday is in fact an incarnation of the Norse God Odin, who is attempting to rally the scattered and fading Old World gods brought over with the immigrants that make up America, to fight a battle for the soul of this country against the “new gods” of the internet, the credit card, the media, the automobile, the neon lights.

Some men-in-black types are deployed to stop Wednesday and his sad army of divine/satanic “has-beens,” who include the Hindu goddess of death Kali, the pagan goddess Easter, the African Anansi, the Egyptian gods Anubis, Bast, and Horus, and many more. But the enemy also appears to have fixated on Shadow for no obvious reason, and he survives a number of close encounters with their murderous henchmen, in part due to the intervention of his dead wife, who was accidentally reanimated and is determined to protect Shadow before she rots away. A benumbed Shadow, meanwhile, stumbles through his first weeks on the job, meeting peculiar characters, getting beaten up a lot, dreaming strange dreams, and practicing the coin tricks he began learning in prison to keep himself sane.

Gaiman’s novel takes on an increasingly psychedelic quality, starting with Shadow’s dreamed encounters with the dead Laura, his fantastic carousel ride with the gods, his visit to the stars with the Zorya sister, his vigil for Odin at World Tree, his sojourn in the land of the dead, his underground consultations with the buffalo-headed (Native American?) god, and much more. And yet, as strange a turn as the novel takes, it is also grounded in the real-life drama of Shadow’s efforts to cope with both Laura’s betrayal and her death, his unusual relationship with Wednesday/Odin and his growing commitment to Odin’s cause, and the almost “ordinary” sub-plot surrounding the mysterious town of Lakeside and its missing children. Throughout the novel, one watches Shadow change and grow into something much larger than himself, and it is at the same time mysterious and, somehow, inspiring.

The final battle, worthy of a Marvel comic, and the understated and mysterious conclusion to the novel, left my head spinning. A sequel, of course, is in the works. Word is that American Gods is about to be serialized by HBO, and as much as I would like to see what they can do with such a complex novel, I fear that it will lose something in the translation to screen, even with Gaiman writing the screenplay. Whatever the outcome, this is a book worth reading — and puzzling over.