Dave Eggers, a wildly popular author and education activist, has come out with a new novel about the techie world of Internet, called The Circle. It has rocked Silicon Valley and won both high praise and furious criticism.
The Internet titans, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and others, the obvious targets of this book, have taken cover and are lying low, waiting for the storm to pass. Meanwhile the media and the blogosphere are unchained (see articles below); Goodreads in the two weeks since it's published has already given it 172 ratings and 52 reviews, many quite damning (see here); and Amazon has nominated it the "Best Book of the Month - October 2013", though so far it has only garnered 22 customer reviews (see here).
Some say it reads like a modern-day George Orwell (one of my favorite authors), others bash it for a lack of subtlety and crass irony, others even accuse him of plagiarizing, and of course, the techies argue it's "less about Silicon Valley and more about looking at ourselves". The New York Times wonders whether Dave Eggers has "written a parable of our time, an eviscerating takedown of Silicon Valley and its privacy-invading technology companies? Or has he missed his target, producing a sanctimonious screed that fails to humanize its characters and understand its subject?" (to read Julie Bosman and Claire Cain Miller on it, click here).
The role of Internet in our lives is highly topical and not only in the United States. Over here in Europe, privacy issues have come to the fore, as evidenced by Viviane Reding's successful campaign for privacy, including against Google (she is the EU's Minister of Justice). And we are all becoming more aware of the reach of the so-called Deep Web, many times the size of the Internet we know, a dark place where hackers and Snowden types thrive and that Google's search engines do not trawl. Quite frankly, I became curious, also because of the approach the author has adopted: this is a science fiction thriller set in a not-too-distant future and that tries to use the present as its starting point (something I've tried to do with my soon-to-be-published sci-fi novel Forever Young).
But I hesitated because of the price: about $20 for the Kindle version and $17 for the printed book (yes, less than the digital!)
In such cases, I did what I always do, download a sample from Amazon. This is a great feature, really reader-friendly, and it lets you have enough to decide whether to buy or not.
So I thought I'd share with you what I found. Call it a sample-based review of the book, or "quick review". After all, it's much like what a literary agent does when he asks a writer to submit the first chapter, and it certainly is what any serious reader does before purchasing a book.
Size of Sample: on the Kindle, you can download 5 percent, about 30 pages.The book, published by Knopf, totals 504 pages in hardcover version. Clicking on the "look inside" feature on Amazon you can read more, even the end, but I didn't do that.
Sample Analysis: there are two major hooks to grab you and of course, the professional writing.
Hook #1: the setting. The book opens with a tour of the "Circle" campus. An extreme combination of Google and Microsoft headquarters, the Circle is a tech company that offers everything to its employees, from yoga and all-night music to a dog kennel and on-campus dorms. You are told that the Circle has become the biggest digital company in the world, displacing all the others because its founder, Ty Gaspadinov (guess where the idea of a Russian name comes from!), has had the genial intuition to combine in one place all digital services. You only need one identity, one password and one payment system, the "TruYou", to access everything: "One button for the rest of your life online."
Now, I hate all the passwords we have to struggle with and the dog kennel idea is cute. But, speaking as an economist, the basic premise of the novel is idiotic and totally improbable. No single site is going to surge overnight and displace at one go the Amazons, eBays and Googles of our digital world.
I know, readers often need to accept the implausible to move on with the story, but this is too much to ask for.
Had the book been an obvious satire, one could have accepted such a wildly improbable premise, but alas, it isn't. The tone is serious, realistic - indeed, close to Orwell's. But what made Orwell's 1984 so powerful was that it was so real, so probable. 1984 is a logical outcome of the concentration of political power in a future where the state, aided by technical progress, exerts full control over society.
Here, you just know that digital power cannot be concentrated in this way and cannot therefore arrive at full control over our society, not even in a distant future. In addition, there's no mention of the Deep Web (at least not in the beginning of the book) yet that was a perfect villain, it would have added suspense to the plot. How could the author have missed it?
So this hook has failed.
Hook # 2: The characters. We are presented with two young women, Mae and Annie, who were college friends. Annie who's started working for the Circle helps Mae get a job there. We're meant to feel sorry for Mae who presents herself as a perennial loser eternally in debt to Annie who's a born winner. We are pushed into Mae's mind as she tours the Circle's campus and lives through the unexpected indignity of being assigned an awful, shoddy, burlap-covered office cubicle, the worst on the floor - courtesy of Annie. But why did she do that? To test her friend's stamina? Maybe. But anyone who's worked for a big corporation (I have) knows that it is virtually impossible to set up an office that departs from corporate specifications. And it is difficult to believe that Annie rose to the top of the company in just two years (that's how long she's been working there) and could flout the rules - especially in the techie world that (so far) is not particularly supportive of women at the higher echelons (with, as always, some exceptions that confirm the rule).
So again, the scene in that office - the first action scene of the book - is not credible. And Annie's character is an enigma: is she tough or not, does she really like Mae, and if she does not, why have her come to work for the Circle? And yet, by then, we're thirty pages into the novel, the main characters should have become real but they haven't.
In short, it is difficult to "get into them". You feel like you don't care what happens to either Mae or Annie.
Again, this hook has failed.
The style or author's "voice". Since it is supposed to be literary, you get literary descriptions that can be sometimes irritating. Like this one: "...a volleyball court, where tiny children from the company's daycare center were running, squealing, weaving like water." Really, kids are weaving like water?? Does water weave? Yes, yes, I know, it's poetic.
Then, although it's set in the future, you get a surprising use of words that are decidedly old-fashioned. Like Annie being called by her boyfriends a "doofus" (a 1960s term) or enjoying "doo-wop" music (a 1950s term)...Now, that is jarring, it pulls you out of the mood.
The dialogue is often stilted, characters are given to long tirades, Annie literally gives a conference to her friend about the founder and his "wise men" in front of a portrait of the three, and that is a further problem.
Conclusion: I think I will pass.
But if you've read the book or plan to read it, please share your opinion in the comments below. I'd love to know what you think and whether I'm spot on with this short assessment. I could be totally wrong, so do let me know, give me arguments to read the book!
UPDATE: The New York Times' columnist Joe Nocera has just published an article that almost makes me change my opinion. He compares "The Circle" to George Orwell's "1984" reminding us that three slogans from the Orwellian Ministry of Truth dominate the world:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
Likewise, Eggers' book has three slogans:
SHARING IS CARING
SECRETS ARE LIES
PRIVACY IS THEFT
Cool...That could nearly change my opinion and I shall certainly buy the book when the price drops.
Eggers vision of the future is of course far-fetched, but, as Nocera says, not more than "1984" was: it "imagines where we could end up if we don't begin paying attention. Indeed, what is striking is how far down this road we have already gone." I couldn't agree more. The invasion of privacy is frightening...
To read the article, click here.