As the car sped up, adrenalin poured down the tributaries of alleyways and sidestreets.
"It's like I am coming out of a long boredom. It's an upper case revelation. WHAT IS HAPPENING BEFORE MY VERY EYES? The counter-cultural prophecies of the 1990s have all come true. A fundamentalist Christian business culture? Check. Mass surveillance culture? Check. Identity cards? Check. Robots? Check. An overwhelming, vertiginous terror that the real world has slipped its moorings and is blipping in and out of the banal and quotidian and some deranged power fantasy... CHECK CHECK CHECK. I am meant to be babysitting a robot containing Alex Drown's personality and she has the gall to look at me like I've messed up, when we're standing there in the middle of her mental meltdown."
With a day to go until the ceremony, and my usual impeccable timing, I come to review the fifth of the six books shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, Matthew de Abaitua's The Red Men. The first thing I noticed about the book - after its rather striking cover, that is - was its blurb, "Makes Michel Houellebecq seem like Enid Blyton". No, I hadn't a clue what that was supposed to mean, either, beyond a sneaking suspicion that it was Not For Me.
In many respects, so it proved.
(Also, having finished the book, I am none the wiser about the blurb.)
Set in the UK, primarily Hackney and Liverpool, The Red Men transfers the cut-throat ladder-climbing and married-to-the-firm lifestyle of the mid-level corporate 'creative' into a near-future world of artificial intelligence, robots, and transgenic organs. Nelson Millar, thirty-something refugee of 'edgy' magazine publishing and drifting father of one, has spent the past few years working for Monad. Monad, in collaboration with an artificial intelligence from the future (maybe) named Cantor, is dedicated to developing, marketing and supporting 'red men': computer-simulated doppelgangers of its clients.
The red men are conceived as "a celebrity of yourself, a distillation into perfection", as "your own personal hype. Also a hypothesis based on your consciousness." In case we missed the subtle cues as to what genre we are working in and whether the author is sufficiently self-aware and non-serious, one character is made to comment, "'I hate science fiction'" when this idea is mooted. (Yes, really. I sighed.) A red man is more than just a copy; it is created to be conscious, and, at least in theory, to work for the customer. As Nelson's old friend Raymond is told when he - with Nelson's help - gets a job in Monad customer relations:
"Monad simulates its customers, and you are going to be explaining to those customers precisely what has happened to them. There must be no misapprehension that the simulation is a perfect copy of them, or that it constitutes some form of immortality. They are characters in the imagination of an artificial intelligence."
That these are virtual identities with their own, entirely willful, minds will come as no surprise. As one red man explains, the ability to play with virtuality, to create and control and be gods in their own paradises, is a red man's reward: "'There isn't much call in Monad for money. We get paid with licences to operate outside the bounds of the reality principle.'" They enjoy their power and freedom, and want to preserve it.
Hapless Raymond soon finds himself on the wrong side of an early adopter's virtual self. Harold Blasebalk decides to stop paying his subscription to the simulation service - but his red man, Harry Bravado, is not ready to give up his 'life', and fights back with every tool at the disposal of an artificial intelligence in a world filled with computer networks. When Raymond is assigned to investigate the case - including Blasebalk's disappearance - he finds himself stalked by Bravado through traffic cameras and credit card records and mobile phones playing recordings of his dying father's voice. It becomes increasingly clear that the red man is a very different personality than his source, a "gruesomely aggressive" potential side. As Blasebalk's wife puts it,
"They captured the worst of my husband. A grotesque caricature. The part of him that I never saw - him at work, making all our money, doing all the things I never had to think about."
Here there be allegory, of course: red men stand for corporate drones, for the demands of such a career and the incremental ways in which people (here largely, but not exclusively, men) sacrifice more and more of what makes life worth living, for the sake of the job supposedly paying for that life. Raymond reads a guerilla-published anti-red man newsletter filled with horror stories of those who have suffered the excesses of their own red man. One interviewee describes how it began:
The next day I went into work and it was like having my own Djinni. Money, women, power. Then I wanted to take some time off. Enjoy my earnings. It didn't want that for us.
There are also descriptions of how things deteriorate, and why:
There were also tales of harassment. One man's account told of a red man going rogue, spilling secrets about old affairs backed up by timesheets, cash withdrawals, credit card and phone bills. It took to sending him brief videoclips of his own death, close-ups of his throat being slit, or the precise effect a bullet would have if fired up through the jaw and into his skull. Referencing these anecdotes, an editorial suggested that, "Anything a red man dreams or imagines, it can set down as media. Although their acts are restrained by the reality principle, it seems they are encouraged to give full vent to their words, desires, and creative inclinations, no matter how destructive. They are indulged like precocious children."
Bravado does eventually succeed in killing the real Blasebalk; rather than admit what happened, Monad scapegoats Raymond, who flees the scene, for the murder. But even if a red man does not turn against its source so spectacularly, another - again, very pertinent to the corporate analogy - question remains: If your company could create a simulated version of you that didn't need wages and never asked for time off, how long do you think you would keep your job? It is this question that haunts Nelson and his colleagues throughout the story; some characters are, indeed, made redundant in favour of their less fractious or less distracted red men. The point is made even more directly when Nelson's long-overdue simulation results in a red man version of himself who is significantly younger, at the height of his ambition and energy (and, not coincidentally, fecklessness); he is his own corporate-ladder nemesis.
After Raymond's disappearance, Nelson is forced into staying at Monad - and heading up a new project called Redtown, intended to simulate the population and environment of an entire suburb of Liverpool - by the threat of being named an accomplice to Raymond's 'crime'. He is also cajoled with appeals to his (and the company's) ambition, in a series of phrases that are ringingly empty, but all-too-plausible given the context:
"Of course, you'll struggle to sell this to your wife. Simply, she will have to accept that her needs must fit around our imperatives. This is a moral education for you, Nelson, a chance to learn what success really involves. Building Redtown will demand sacrifices, not just from yourself. You will be working at a much higher level than previously. Results will be expected. This is where we expect you to step up and actually achieve something. Do you know what it feels like to win a big one?"
It's a neat sort of conceit, and is often - mostly in the early stages, especially Raymond vs. Bravado - well executed. The problem is that the crushing demands of corporate life are neither personally resonant nor remotely interesting to me, and as such I found it hard to muster much enthusiasm for plot or character, or to excuse the book's storytelling and stylistic weaknesses. Martin Lewis, in his review over at Strange Horizons, sums up The Red Men's concerns brilliantly: "the book is actually at least partially about trying not to be a cock". Fair enough, and clever with it; but over 400 pages of self-centred pigs* creating and then putting right a fuck up, with little apparent impact on or reference to the world at large, all the while learning to be marginally less like self-centred pigs...? I am not compelled. The portrait of the more boorish, unrepentantly-sexist blokes among Nelson's colleagues and superiors reminded me of another recent read, Ali Smith's Girl meets boy (a multi-Alexandrian discussion post of which is in the works); but there the men in question were not the centre of the story world, and a relief it was too.
[* the term is used advisedly, given how many of the men depend up or have their sex drive enhanced by genetically-engineered porcine organs. ]
Nelson, who takes on most of the narration duties, is a pleasant enough if largely absent character, who panics and worries in all the required places but who mostly remains a collection of reactions. His scenes with his young daughter make for a welcome change of pace, and a glimpse of something other in his personality, something he guards jealously from Cantor. (Although the imagery of him brushing her hair on the opening page threw me completely: "I concentrated on the long stroke of the brush, each pass spinning golden thread", we are told - surely spinning is the opposite of what one aims for in brushing hair, which is all about separating strands rather than drawing them together?)
The friendship between Nelson and Raymond is also well drawn, and brings both characters to life in unexpected ways. Its dynamics remind me of the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost characters in Shaun of the Dead - the one trying to grow up and come to terms with adult responsibility by overdoing the seriousness, the other a needy, clinging big kid who one imagines has yet to learn to work the toaster:
Our relationship was all about him, his needs, which were always more florid and urgent than mine. He was not easy company in whom I could confide the minor frustrations of my working life.
Raymond himself is irritating in a great many ways, symptomatic of all the novel's worst excesses - its flights of fudged surrealism, its clumsy structuring of story information, its piling on of diminishing-returns adjectives, its often overdone wackiness. Here he is retelling his experiences (a frequent pastime for him) to Nelson:
"In place of the usual inner chatter there was a rush of information from the muscle sense, the inner ear. I could feel the macadamised heft of my lung lining, the groaning sodden liver, the whine of knee cartilage but most of all, the hesitancy of my heart. It was a non-lucid moment. I still had Florence's thighs over each shoulder, the pressure of her flesh against my ears. Clamped. Locked in the meat prison. I had to get out. So zzzzip I'm on the other side of the bedroom slapping my own face to get Raymond Chase back on-line."
This goes on for some pages. The quotation at the head of the post is another example of Raymondese. It starts out as disorientating but fun; soon it is just wearing. By the later stages of the book an awful lot of the ordinary prose reads much like it, as de Abaitua piles on the surreal (occult conspiracies, trips into virtual reality, Monad's counterpart and nemesis Dyad) and struggles to maintain the integrity or coherence of his story. The intermittent bouts of tin ear, meanwhile, are not confined to the prose; "'He was a malign baby. With his round shoulders and a recessed chin, he looked like he was still being breastfed. His comfy jumpers gave off a sour milky odour'" reads like the stilted speech of an AI, but unfortunately it is supposed to be human dialogue.
On the other hand, Raymond has more spark and warmth to him than Nelson, and is the recipient if not the architect of some of the book's better extended riffs:
[Raymond] ended up in a house of fellow pariahs: his last housemate terrified him, an advertising creative freefalling through society, spending his redundancy payment on Red Bull, Vodka and LSD. "Are you joining me tonight, Raymond?" the loon would ask, standing in the bath with his Airfix models, recreating the Battle of River Plate. Clean shirt and tie but no trousers. Always a bad sign. Realising that his housemate's psychic collapse was more florid than his own, Raymond spent his evenings in sullen silence watching the Cancer Channel.
This wry, freewheeling sense of humour - the willingness to take a thought to its absurd conclusion - scuppers the book when it is applied to the increasingly fractured plot, but on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis it is responsible for some very funny moments. I particularly enjoyed the inability of Texan brothers Josh and James to understand why the simulated people of Redtown got depressed during a trial economic downturn ("'You have underestimated qualities
such as pro-activity, can-do spirit, the materialistic age [...] Did you make these people liberals?'"). De Abaitua's supporting characters - several of them much quirkier and more interesting than the main ones, like Florence the WWII-obsessed poet (others are more generic types) - are very good at launching into rants. Here is Bougas, a corporate grotesque of the highest order:
"I'll tell you what inspires me. On the next deck down, they have a shop and in that shop there is a sign which reads: 'We are committed to quality'. I had to say to them: why are you merely committed to quality? Why not 'fanatical about quality'? I took my pen out and made a new sign for them: 'So obsessed about quality we sit in an armchair all night sharpening a knife in case it cheats on us.' Not bad, but it needed something snappier. Why not simply, 'Degrading ourselves for you'? A little white sign above every shop in every provincial shit hole that reads 'wasting out lives embodying a value rendered meaningless by its ubiquity FOR YOU.' I'd buy. First in the queue."
Too often, though, de Abaitua does not use his powers for good, unable to resist overloading his imagery just in case the reader missed his allegorical intent, rather dulling the effect:
She was right to be suspicious of Monad. The corporation and the family are rivals. Capital is our lord, exercising droit de seigneur over its subjects. Offices are harems, in which we compete to see who can be the most fucked by the master; I had fallen into a strange and dangerous relationship with my employer; for all its great power, Monad was a possessive, insecure lover and it could be vindictive if you showed interest in anyone or anything else.
The Red Men is a frustrating read, a book that shows real potential but gets lost in its often muddled prose and the overlong, meandering exploration of its ideas, with a whiff of self-indulgence where there should have been more discipline. Shorter and with a tighter focus, it could have been much better.
(who was also surprised and put off by some of the book's typos: "discretely" and "St Catherine of Sienna", in particular)