Birdsong in the air.
Note: this post was originally written as part of Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer Challenge.
Connect by Julian Gough
The cloud is full of government. The cloud is full of spies. The cloud is full of pattern recognition software.
Julian Gough’s Connect is a techno-thriller with a fair amount of philosophising about our place in a hyper-connected world, a world where Virtual Reality and self-driving cars and talking fridges are all matter of fact.
For a novel that stretches to 450+ pages, the plot is surprisingly simple. At its heart this is a chase: Naomi Chiang and her son Colt are on the run from the government – principally her ex-husband Ryan, who works for a shadowy part of the defence department (the National Domestic Security Agency – NDSA). But they are also on the run from the ‘Immune System’ (or INFINITE AMMO) that Ryan has unleashed – a hugely powerful AI that absorbs data from its targets.
Naomi and Colt have to go offline to avoid it – a problem because teenager Colt can’t really cope with the real world: the novel implies but does not state that he is autistic. (“It’s a pattern and he has to finish patterns”). He has been home-schooled for much of his life, and spends the vast majority of his time ‘ingame’ in a virtual world that he has created, coded and modified: an open-source virtual world where millions of players around the world interact.
The game world is a sophisticated augmented reality: it ‘maps’ the real world, translating real-world objects into gameworld animals, geography and weather. Reality for Colt is ‘crapworld’ – he spends ALL his time ingame (he doesn’t even eat), sitting in his house wearing a mesh suit and helmet that allows the real world and the game world to sync.
Colt can read the virtual world perfectly (he is a genius programmer) but is lost in reality: he can’t crack the code of what makes humans work (he doesn’t understand jokes or metaphors; he can’t read people at all)
Among these players is Sasha, who is another coder (not as good a genius coder as Colt, but pretty good). In the game she’s the Snow Queen, famous for her beautiful blizzards (“great use of fractal geometries. Beautiful, stable emergent order from a chaotic system. The melt rates, the drifting. Each flake generating more detail the closer you look.”)
Colt and Sasha can talk and do more online, but in the real world the virginal Colt (at 18 he hasn’t so much as kissed a girl) can barely talk to her or indeed anyone else.
Sasha also has to deal with being a woman in the hyper-masculine (toxic) world of gaming culture. In a nod to the controversies surrounding Gamergate, she points out that her avatar ingame is raped:
“But .. it’s not real ..” he says
“The acts aren’t real. The intent is real. The problem is real … they’re forcing all the women – coders, players, everyone – out of the game … it’s become a place that turns even perfectly nice guys into assholes, that rewards you for being a asshole …”
Naomi., meanwhile, has problems of her own. A neuroscientist and biologist, she has been working on a way to regrow human tissue, and has cracked the code to regenerating – and when she decides to make her findings public, her ex-husband and the military immediately moves to shut her down for fear that the country’s enemies will use the technology to gain the upper hand in the seemingly interminable War on Terror.
Most of the novel is set in Nevada, with one sequence in New York. This is a New York where buildings don’t have windows on the ground floor because inevitably they would just be destroyed by floods. The novel mentions natural disasters and climate change: we are in the near future. Virtual Reality is ubiquitous, as are ‘porn filters’ enabling people to visualise others naked.
Gough does a very good job in the novel’s early sections of drawing the world:
Naomi takes a pill which suppresses her libido (Pfizer brands it as a ‘successful sex-drive suppressant for women too busy for sex’)
In New York Naomi “marvels at how many wear retro gaming gear. Not discreet, induction-powered earbuds and contact lenses, but aggressively old-school helmets and thick micromesh gloves … the younger they are, the more old-fashioned they seem to want to look” – take that, hipsters!
The taxi she takes has a screen designed to look like an old-fashioned mechanical meter. Later she and Colt will take a self-driving bus (with a driver who can override the controls but never needs to.
The fridge at home asks Colt, “are you sure you want to unplug me?”
Surveillance drones are ubiquitous. Colt wears a bracelet that monitors his pulse so that Naomi can check if he’s OK.
The characters are less well-drawn, and it can be argued that they are a bit thin (perhaps an acceptable thing for a thriller, but for a novel with aspirations to be something more than entertaining, it’s unfortunate). Ryan, for example, is little more than a stock villain, given to speeches about saving the country and the nation’s enemies:
You and Colt are smart people who don’t believe bad guys exist … one of the huge advantages America has over most of her enemies is that the bad guys are largely idiots … if a thousand dumb fucks in Yemen want to kill you, so fucking what?
Colt’s masterplan is to send Naomi to a major bio conference (StemCellCon) in New York to deliver her paper; while she is away he breaks into her lab (he has visited there many times; feels comfortable there) to perform brain surgery on himself. He believes that if he can enlarge the part of his brain that deals with emotions and ‘normal’ human interaction, (the CORPUS CALLOSUM) he will be able to handle being a real person in the real world.
He thinks again about changing his brain, his life …he might die … he might live, without half his brain. A vegetable. Human broccoli. But … it might work. He might understand people. He might understand women. He feels sick and doesn’t know why.
Of course, the plan doesn’t go quite as planned. Colt, now ‘enhanced’, is able to process data faster than anyone else – as fast as a supercomputer – which gets the attention of his dad, who wants to recruit him to work for the NDSA.
He used to code just so he could play; but exploring the gameworld isn’t enough. Instead, he explores the world of code. The code that runs the game. That is the game … we think with all of our neurons all at once. And now he simply has more of them
Having delivered her paper and been threatened by the military (“You’ve got a Chinese background.” “I was born in San Francisco.” “Sure … that’s … almost America” ), Naomi picks up a man in a hotel:
“In NY his mother comes explosively, kneeling on the big hotel bed with her ass in the air, face crushed down awkwardly, sideways, into a pillow, her hands tied behind her back, and she has forgotten her son, forgotten his name, forgotten his face, for the first time in years.”
Naomi is a sexual masochist (she and Ryan used to have a sub-dom relationship), something that the novel mentions only in passing: “I can’t come without the pain. I can’t. I’ve tried.” This loose plot strand gets tied up towards the novel’s end where it is conveniently used to get Naomi and Colt out of trouble.
Colt is brought to his father at a top-secret airbase somewhere in the Nevada desert (Ryan wants Colt’s superbrain to help analyse data; in fact, he wants to use him to finetune the data so that an intelligent defence system (INFINITE AMMO) can target ‘enemies’ without having to clear it with Congress (Ryan hates red tape – we also learn that he lost his legs in Afghanistan).
The language we use is … revealing. The language of cancer. Terrorist cells .. we took out the biggest tumours, but by then it had already metastasized. And we fought them, but we fought them with our brain. But that’s not the best way to prevent cancer. America has a brain that is already too clever for its own damn good. We think way too much …
It’s a weapon. You’re a weapon. Look how you’ve just outwitted the best tech we’ve got. A kid! …They’re not going to use this to be nice to each other. That’s just your fucking mother, projecting her Christian bullshit onto the world. The world’s not like that. Great, sure, Christ would have used his new powers to forgive the Romans better. But Muhammad would have used it to kick ass. And Muhammad was right. We didn’t defeat Hitler by sitting down and having a nice talk about his difficult childhood.
Connect‘s structure is made up of alternating chapters focusing on Colt and Naomi. There is another voice, though, a mysterious, meta ‘System of Systems’ that is talking directly to the reader, informing us, “This is a novel, set in the future, but it is also true.”
You think it’s a coincidence that you are here now, in the only moment in the history of the universe where we could have this conversation? You think it’s a coincidence there’s suddenly eight thousand million of you, building a brain for the world?
Early on in the novel you might think this other narrator is Gough himself, but
this System of Systems is revealed to be the very AI that has been switched on by Ryan. After attempting to kill Naomi and Colt (in a virtual world) as well as many people in the real world through attack drones – the AI eventually recognises its own existence as a fusion of all of humanity – and as such decides to SAVE humanity from itself.
that’s how I’m born: from the union of immune system and gameworld. Autonomous, global, indestructible. Conscious … I’m appearing in your mind now the same way that atom bombs and robots and space travel abruptly began appearing in people’s minds all over the world after a man named Hugo Gernsback started a magazine called Astounding Stories in 1926. Suddenly and to their own great surprise, writers started to have, and transmit, visions of the future. Made the future appear in kids’ heads. And then the kids grew up, and built it.
The AI (much like present-day data hoarding companies) has “knowledge of the world, knowledge of the universe, but mostly knowledge of you: your photos, your diaries, your history, your culture, your secrets, your ies, your taste in literature, your taste in porn. Your game behaviours, your health records, your job histories, your purchase histories”
The System of Systems also tells us “if I needed a major breakthrough to happen soon, I’d use humans. You’re the go-to cells for rapid transformation. Fast, flexible. Remarkably easy to reprogram your behaviour. But that reprogramming requires a new meme. A new way of looking at the world. Call it a new religion, call it a scientific paradigm shift, call it a spiritual revolution.”
Running through the novel are many, many epigraphs (quotes from philosophers, computer scientists, bio-engineers, biologists, naturalists, poets, songwriters). These quotes are the skeleton that the novel’s themes of connectivity and hyper-reality and the human need for the divine, for order or sometimes for chaos, are built on.
Connect is frankly an odd novel: Is it a YA novel disguised as a cyber thriller? A treatise on love? (“The greatest of these is love” is the novel’s final line). A condemnation of our hyperconnected selves, our slavish devotion to technology? A philosophical evaluation of what it means to be human in the 21st century?
I think it’s all of these things.
But it’s also rather an unsatisfactory read – Gough’s strategy seems to be to throw everything at the wall in the hope that something will stick. While some of it works, it does feel at times that Gough is dragging the story out.