Silicon Valley moguls might not find Zed a particularly amusing read. Joanna Kavenna’s latest mindbender features the CEO of a multinational tech company whose sway has long outstripped that of mere governments. Guy Matthias’s creation, Beetle, has invaded western lives to an unprecedented degree. BeetleBands on wrists advise users when they need to eat, hydrate or calm down. Very Intelligent Personal Assistants or Veeps perform tasks and offer factual information. Monetary systems have long since switched to the cryptocurrency Beetlebits, leaving late adopters penniless. Beetle runs the premier mode of transport, all telecommunications and the ubiquitous surveillance cameras. The information is fed back to individual, constantly adjusted Lifestreams. Snap at your boss, and your Lifestream will reconfigure your chances of being fired. Crack open a lunchtime beer, and your fridge will report on you. It’s reminiscent of China’s good citizenship score, and Guy is vigorously liaising with his Chinese counterparts.
Beetle even pervades the criminal justice system, for Lifestreams can predict when a crime is going to be committed, making it perfectly feasible to be prosecuted for something you haven’t yet done. The greatest crime is interfering in any way with ‘those working for the security of the nation’ — Beetle employees. This covers anyone dissenting or protesting. There is one newspaper left, staffed mostly by robohacks, and Guy owns it.
Reality is something that can be distorted, manipulated or flat-out denied. Yet Beetle faces a crisis when an ordinary Englishman with an exemplary Lifestream suddenly murders his wife and two young boys. Attempting to explain the anomaly, Beetle thinkers posit Zed: ‘a category definition that encapsulates disruptive elements of uncertainty’. When the supposedly impossible keeps on happening, Zed events threaten to crash the system.
Unlike other dystopian novelists, Kavenna rarely focuses on human evil or the will to power. Guy is simply vain and foolish. Instead it’s the rigid logic of the algorithm that’s to blame (although critics of Beetle do have a habit of dying in car crashes). Her satire takes aim at technocrats who, having judged themselves utopian idealists, define all their ideas as ipso facto beneficial. In order to promote harmony between people, Beetle promotes Bespoke, a language stripped of nuance and the potential to offend. Because Beetle wants humanity to achieve its maximum potential, Guy comes up with BeetleInspire, a programme of auto-suggestion that might incidentally influence a judge to rule in Beetle’s favour.
It’s chillingly believable, but Zed is also extremely funny, especially when the hitherto compliant Veeps begin to malfunction. All the characters — Guy, his UK aide Douglas Varley, the security agent Eloise Jayne, and the last newspaper editor standing, David Strachey — must hack their own way back to sanity. It might be too late, for them and for us. The novel runs out of steam at the end, as though exhausted by its own ingenuity, but nevertheless Kavenna remains one of the most brilliant and disconcerting British writers working today.