The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013)

Dave Eggers’ The Circle is a near-future dystopia where one super-tech company (think Google + Facebook + Amazon) is attempting to integrate the entire human experience into an online sphere, where everything you do, buy, wear, and think is shared in a continuous stream with the entire world; with the ultimate goal to erase anonymity and make privacy obsolete.

The story’s main character, Mae, is a young woman, newly recruited to work at a tech company called The Circle, a dream-job for her. Mae is dazzled by the extravagant campus — gyms, pools, restaurants, a hospital, shopping, theaters, and more — and cutting edge tech at the company. While Mae expected to be part of a highly competitive and extremely hard-working group, it quickly becomes clear that working for The Circle is not a career but a lifestyle. Mae must not only meet her work deadlines and commitments, but become part of the social structure of the company: dedicating nights, weekends, and countless hours online during her days and nights connecting — endlessly — with her co-workers.

Also startling, is the lack of privacy she must adapt to: her medical records accessed and used to monitor her health; her entire online past uploaded and shared with the entire company; video monitoring her all day and night; and the constant reminders from her superiors that she is being watched and judged. All of this, she reasons, is the price one pays to work for the largest company in the world and to be at the fore-front of the tech revolution.

The Circle beings to announce more and more radical products and services — including hidden cameras stashed that can be bought and placed (undetected) anywhere in the world to send a constant video feed to the Internet — in becomes clear that the company plans to force the world to adapt to The Circle’s ideas of democracy, privacy, and accountability…without asking government for permission.

Two characters emerge as foils to devotion the employees of The Circle’s maintain: Mae’s high school boyfriend who is a critic of the direction The Circle is taking the world, and a mysterious co-worker, Kalden who Mae starts an illicit affair with and who shows her a different, darker side of The Circle. But Mae is in too deep, she agrees to “go transparent” and wear a camera and recording device 24/7 to ensure her complete honesty and makes her lack of privacy utterly complete.

Eggers has created a richly imagined and greatly detailed world and presents it to readers in such a straight-forward manner that it seems like an entirely plausible near-future. However, the book has some drawbacks that distract from the story; many of which seem to stem from a stereotypes about women that the author — perhaps unknowingly, perhaps not — renforces in this book. Among these flaws are the unevenness of his main character Mae, who Eggers tries to portray as a a woman smart enough to quickly become a star employee and charming enough to be quite popular, but is also naive, selfish, incompetent, and back-stabbing. It is unclear whether these are character flaws that stem from her personality, or from the fact that she is a woman. Furthermore, Eggers does what so many male writers do with their female characters by oversexualizing Mae’s character in ways that are out of step with women in general, and this character specifically.

Also of note is the fact that the author feels the need to repeatedly, and at length, lecture readers about the finer details of the plot. Instead of relying on his readers to deduce what dastardly things the company is getting up to, or allowing us to use plot clues to make sense of the dangers of a world without privacy might present, he uses character monologues — almost everytime it is male characters who are “mansplaining” to Mae what is going on at the company or in the world — once again suggesting that his female character is unable to comprehend on her own complex ideas and therefore must be to force fed them by her male counterparts.

This combination of gender-stereotype flaws are wearisome by the middle of the book, and seem practically condescending by the end of it, overshadowing some of the books more interesting ideas.

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This One is Mine by Maria Semple (2008)

“Maria Semple writes with comic brilliance in this smart, compassionate, wickedly funny take on our need for more — and the sometimes disastrous choices we make in the name of happiness.” From the book jacket of This One is Mine

This One is Mine

Maria Semple has written a truly extraordinary novel in This One is Mine. It is populated with richly drawn characters; whose stories are compelling, intense, and reflective of some of the best and worst of human nature; and told throughout with smart, crisp, funny voice that is unique to Semple. This first novel of hers is grittier, edgier, and darker than her two more recent best-sellers, Where Did You Go Bernadette? and Today Will Be Different (reviewed here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1mx ) and does not rely, as those two novels do, on gimmicky multi-textural elements.  This novel is simply a dynamic story told by a master storyteller, whose insight into the desperation of people chasing down their version of “happiness” is spot on.

Violet and David Parry are an LA power couple, immensely rich and widely envied for their lavish lifestyle and celebrity friends. They are also deeply unhappy in their marriage, teetering on the edge of divorce, and unable to communicate with one another about simple things…and certainly not about what is happening to their marriage. David finds himself disgusted with his wife’s descent from edgy TV writer and intellectual into a deeply depressed stay-at-home mother whose only past-time — he believes — is spending his money.

Violet also does not recognize herself, physically and mentally emptied by post-partum depression and her husband’s increasingly cruel emotional abuse. She is woken up from her numbness when she meets Teddy, a ex-junkie, musician, and sex addict who makes her feel alive with his obsession with her. Through Teddy, Violet once again is reminded of the smart, creative, sexy woman she used to be; the reawakening of those feelings are like a drug to her. Suddenly, she is doing anything and everything for Teddy, including risking her marriage and custody of her daughter to pursue him and make him love her. The worse Teddy treats her, the riskier her behavior grows, and her discretion vanishes.

On the edges of Violet and David’s life flits David’s younger sister Sally. Sally is gorgeous and sexy, desperate to land a rich husband so she can live a life more like her brother and his wife. In fact, she is so obsessed with creating her “ideal” life that she has become unhinged; mistreating friends, lying to men, and constantly scheming ways to get more of everything she feels is owed to her. Her lies and manipulations lead to disastrous consequences, from which Violet and David are forced to rescue her.

The characters in the novel are all so desperate for a different, better, more perfect life that they begin to destroy themselves in the name of having it all. Semple’s intelligence and wit are on clear display in her writing, as is her wide-reaching knowledge of current events and her startling astute grasp of human nature…at its best and its worst. This book was outstanding; unique, sad, funny, awful, and hopeful all at once, and I could not put it down.

 

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (2016)

“For anyone who has wondered what their life might be like at the end of the road not taken” — The dedication, Dark Matter

dark matter

What if you knew in advance that in making one single decision you could alter the course of your life forever, in ways you could not predict and were potentially irrevocable? Would you take greater care in making your choice, follow your instincts, or would you make one choice but spend the rest of your life obsessing over the path not taken? That questions burns at the heart of Dark Matter, a whip-smart science fiction thriller with surprising emotional depth and a rich, well-developed plot.

Jason Dessen, our main character, begins the novel as an average man, on a average night. A physicist of great promise turned mid-level professor of no real acclaim, Jason is struggling with envy over the news that his former roommate (and to Jason’s mind, a lesser scientist) has won a prestigious international prize. The news has rattled Jason, who is happy with his wife Daniela and teenage son Charlie; living an ordinary life in Chicago. But he cannot help, as he walks to a bar to a party to celebrate this colleague, think that he could have been him, that he could have done great things and changed the world…if only he had not chosen to marry Daniela and raise their son.

Beyond all possibility and reason, that exact night Jason is forced to see exactly what the “path not taken” looks like, when he is kidnapped, beaten, and drugged by a masked man who demands intimate details of Jason’s life and — just as he leaves him for dead — asks Jason, “are you happy with your life?”

What follows is a wild sci-fi roller coaster; filled with mind-bending physics experiments, inter-dimensional travel, cutting edge psychotropic drugs, as well as betrayal, lies, and murder. Jason is torn from his life and thrust into another, where he is — and is not — himself. He is presented with alternate versions of who he could have been and what he might have accomplished, if he had walked away from Daniela all those years ago.

While science fiction often tends to be emotionally removed; choosing to sacrifice plot for details of the world the author trying to create, Dark Matter goes in another direction. Crouch delves deep into the emotional landscape of Jason’s life and the wild turn it has taken. Jason’s deep and abiding love for his wife and son are the center of the story, propelling him away from the “alternate” versions of himself and back toward the family he so desperately longs to rejoin. He knows with certainty the path he has taken, not the one he has not, is the perfect choice for him.