Zed is a satirical comedy of errors, hilarious and poignant and horrifyingly relevant.
Joanna Kavenna’s Zed is a pitch-dark comedy about an Orwellian future where Big Brother is not only watching but controls every aspect of society. Imagine if Google merged with the NSA, CIA, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, as well as owned almost every media channel and newspaper in the country. This is Beetle. Everything is constantly filmed, everyone is forced to wear a smartwatch that keeps telling you what to do, your refrigerator tries to control what you eat, and personal assistants called Veeps–an A.I. comparable to a super-advanced Alexa--monitors you and reports everything to Beetle. The dominant form of money is a cryptocurrency created and maintained by Beetle, and around 90% of the population works for the company, or a subsidiary of it. If something negative were to befall the company, then the public would never hear about it. Why? Well, it would be a matter of national security, as the issue would have to be first treated as a potential terrorist threat. And the good of society must come first, of course! Keep in mind, there’s freedom of choice. This is a free society, after all. No one is forced use Beetle’s technology. It’s just that if they didn't use Beetle tech, they would be labeled "unverified," so they wouldn’t have access to any Beetle jobs. Or transportation. Or money. But its their choice!
Nightmarish, right? That’s not the worst part. The company has developed something called a lifechain, which is series of algorithms that predicts all possibilities of what a person might do on any given day. Probabilities are calculated with these lifechains and they are so accurate that Beetle has been able to influence the government to enact a law to “pre-arrest” someone before they commit a crime. The lifechain says they’re going to, so why wait until they do it? This saves everyone lots of time and grief! (This theme also appears in Philip K Dick’s short story, “Minority Report.”) Beetle has also invented ANT’s, which are headless droids, armed with guns, who are perfectly programmed to arrest and secure their targets, and in no way can anything go wrong, since lifechains and Beetle’s AI are perfect. What a perfect society! Guy Matthias, the head of Beetle, just keeps making society better and better! Citizen’s faces have become completely blank over the years so as not to express any kind of feeling in front of cameras or machines, and Guy is so proud that citizens are now able to live in a society without offending anyone!
But, what’s this? Something starts to go wrong. The lifechain seems to have some errors. People commit horrible crimes without the lifechain predicting them. ANT’s start shooting innocents without provocation. Since the AI’s and lifechains are perfectly programmed, then it all must be attributed to human error, of course. Despite Beetle’s efforts, this error gap between perfection and reality starts to widen. This gap is called Zed, named after the last letter of the alphabet, representing all things that don’t quite fit within every paradigm. Undefinable, unquantifiable things, things that shouldn’t be. And Zed keeps getting bigger.
Kavenna’s wry wit shines throughout the story; the humor is both sharp and depressing as it feels like some form of this future isn’t far off from becoming a reality. We view this society through the lens of several different characters: the head of Beetle, the nervous lackey, a tech-hating employee who sees through all the bullshit, a top newspaper reporter, a protesting citizen, and various A.I. Veeps. One of the most humorous and depressingly real scenarios is the adoption of something called Bespoke. Guy Matthias, the head of Beetle, was once part of a conversation where someone much smarter than him was using words that he didn’t understand. In response, he now wants to make communication simple enough for everyone to understand, so he invents a system that dumbs down vocabulary into fewer phrases to make it easier for everyone to communicate. It’s hilarious and frightening and hits too close for comfort.
Zed is a satirical comedy of errors, hilarious and poignant and horrifyingly relevant. It is an extreme example of the direction our larger companies, government, and privacy laws are headed, and if left unchecked, it could lead to some form what this book portrays. Even if you just take this story at face value, it is still an entertaining, intelligent, and thoughtful read.
ARC via NetGalley. Zed is being published by Doubleday Books and will be released on January 14, 2020.
Review by Adam Weller
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