By William L. Morris
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
What if Steve Jobs’ “One more thing” is really a passive aggressive gesture intended to subject us to his will? That’s what Dave Eggers thinks in this new sci fi novel. And it’s not just Jobs; it’s all of them. The Google trinity’s mantra “Do No Evil” is not the solemn vow to do only good everyone thinks it is; it’s an order for the rest of us to fall in line behind because their definition of evil is anything they can’t control or imitate.
Jeff Bezos’ seeming lack of interest in making a profit has nothing to do with unselfishness. It hides an ugly surprise when every analogue store in the world has been shuttered. Then watch the prices shoot up – assuming that what you want is still available. And Mark Zuckerberg’s digital garden party in the clouds is building walls around people standing next to each other and making every drive to the grocery store one more lap in a demolition derby.
These six horsemen have a much different apocalypse planned for us – Eggers implies – than the original four could ever have imagined. Don’t try to resist it because they are all secretly working in tandem and will soon form an all-powerful company called “The Circle.”
Who’s to say they haven’t already? The U.S. government wouldn’t notice. It’s too busy suing anyone who messes with Amazon.com and plotting the next Civil War, one not between regions, races or generations but between personality types.
Eggers has a point. Things are changing much too fast for us to know where we’re headed. The secret weapon of the Cold War, the Internet, has been turned on us and is knocking off all the things we once held dear one by one. (Here’s a question to chew on: if the Cold War were to start again, would the Internet leave us alone?)
First, Apple made computers for the rest of us so we could type and make books without the struggle. Voila, cut-and-paste English and History papers! Then digital recordings made LPs obsolete. Stereo systems? Out with the trash for some poor homeless person to pick up thinking it’s still worth something. Then Google made searching so easy we stopped needing libraries to find things and discontinued that wonderful Borgesian adventure of wandering through the stacks of an excellent library. Then Amazon took away the bookstores. Then the books themselves became irrelevant. iTunes did the same for CDs and Netflix for DVDs. When’s the last time you bought one?
I took off my watch a couple of months ago and never put it back on. I just reach in my pocket for the time. And who needs a camera with all that F-stop nonsense when your smart phone is so convenient? Who misses those Kodak developing tanks with all those chemicals? Throw out your flashlights and all those random batteries. Your smartphone is the best flashlight you’ll ever own. Email is killing the Post Office and Web browsers are doing the same for magazines and newspapers. And don’t get me started about what computers and digital processing are doing to the movies.
Education was hit with a Taser when Bill Gates gave away all his buggy 5-year-old computer programs to schools and got into the computer game business. Now students pull all-nighters not to study but to play video games or use Facebook to message friends across town. Released from their former burdens, schools have become wellness centers – whatever that means. Wikipedia says “the phrase high level wellness [was first coined] in the 1950s. The modern concept of wellness did not, however, become popular until the 1970s.” And you’ll need all the wellness you can get when I remind you there’s a digital record of everything you do, say or buy ready to be opened if you ever happen to befriend a terrorist. All in the name of efficiency and equal opportunity.
By the way, the fact that you read through the above rant makes you a borderline terrorist. It’s exactly the sort of antisocial, paranoid behavior Dave Eggers’ “The Circle” wants to rid the world of. Welcome to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Part Three.” The pods are taking over. Lemmings – complete with their short life spans – are replacing anyone with an inner life.
Eggers didn’t have to go that far into the future to find this nightmare. Self-driving cars are still in the experimental stage and there’s no Obamacare. All that’s different is Google has moved into Apple’s soon-to-be-built spaceship campus in Cupertino and Facebook has eaten both of them for lunch.
The resulting feel-good corporation is in the process of taking over everything in the name of a sort of “No Grown-up Left Behind.” Anyone foolish enough to shoot a warning shot across their prodigious bow is subjected to the kind of scrutiny that would bring down a saint. (When was it exactly that we began to think people in the public eye had to be perfect? Maybe 1954 with “Father Knows Best” whose father, Robert Young, was no saint, they say.)
This glimpse into the future is “WALL-E” (the title of this book, “THE CIRCLE,” is also in caps) meets “1984” or “Brave New World” or “Anthem” (they all blend together in my mind) but the characters aren’t half as interesting as “WALL-E” because they pretend to be human when they are really cartoons.
There are only two interesting people in this novel and the heroine, Mae (a combination of Ma and Me,) isn’t one of them. Her former boyfriend and her current one think outside the box but they are hiding because “The Circle” has the shrink wrap out for them. So 475 of the 491 pages are about as interesting as white bread. The closest thing we come to convincing drama is a scene where one of the three leaders of “The Circle” brainwashes our heroine in real time on national television.
Good old lovable “WALL-E” is at least engaged in a meaningful activity – collecting trash. Circlers skip effortlessly from one trendy item to another like “roasted pigface” that tastes like bacon, organic gardens the size of football fields, shuttle buses equipped like yachts, or vodka shots in the midnight hour. And Mae at the advanced age of 24 meets at man “unlike anyone in her entire life” and that seems “impossible” due to the “thousands of men” she’s already met. Give me (or Ma) a break!
In cartoons imperfections are a bad thing. They show a lack of attention to detail and a lack of continuity. (Try looking at an old Disney feature like “Snow White” after watching “Toy Story” and you’ll see how far cartoons have come in seeming lifelike.) But imperfections are what you want in a novel. They make the verisimilitude of fiction seem real. Smoothing over things in a novel is not a good thing. But “The Circle” is a fantasy, and therefore none of life’s little surprises await the reader even when events take an improbably good or bad turn. It makes for a tough slog for the patient reader. The only thing that keeps him going is finding out whether it is going to be a utopia or a dystopia.
Since he’s writing science fiction, the author has to try his hand at predicting the future, and that’s the problem. He’s chosen a field – technology – that changes overnight. He bets on tablets being ubiquitous when the latest statistics suggest that tablets are a fad and thinner cloud-based PCs and smartphones with larger screens are the future of computing. Oops!
He says one of “The Circle’s” major projects is mapping the Marianas Trench. They bring back a blind, colorless shark and start feeding it things in a topless tank. Shouldn’t it explode like a person stepping into the Martian atmosphere from a spaceship? I hate to get technical.
The next big invention that’s supposed to wow the reader is a camera the size of a lollypop that’s cheap and indestructible and somehow unrecognizable. Apparently we are so used to lollipops invading our world in this future world that we don’t bother to pick them up and put them in the trash. Maybe Circlers don’t see garbage. Poor WALL-E!
These cameras will transform the world according to the guru of “The Circle” because everyone will be able to see and hear everything. The mantra of the company is “All that happens will be known.” But they fail to say who is going to monitor all these images and edit out the unimportant ones. Another problem is it’s written in a simplistic, Da Vinci Code language so even a seventh-grader can plow through it – maybe in the hope that it gets picked up as a summer reading book.
Eggers could have had a lot more fun with this idea. But once he started he must have realized he had to keep moving – the things at the beginning of the novel were already becoming obsolete. I only wish that Twitter had won out over Facebook in the battle for control of “The Circle.” Then the conversations and the observations would have been limited to 140 characters.
By Dave Eggers
491 pages, $27.95
William L. Morris is the co-creator of the News Poetry Page. He now lives and writes in Florida.