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Digital dystopias: Joshua Cohen and David Shafer enter the cloud

Book of Numbers and Whisky Tango Foxtrot belong to a growing canon of tech thrillers from the US, new novels that engage with internet culture, rather than lamenting or ignoring it.

Two significant additions to the growing canon of tech thrillers – riding on the coat-tails of Dave Eggers’s 2013 surveillance drama, The Circle – deliver us Google, Steve Jobs, WikiLeaks and the NSA reimagined to the point of full dystopian horror.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a debut by the American journalist David Shafer, conforms to principles established in the phone-tap era of espionage lit. The book’s many plot-driven thrills and spills are complemented by sci-fi inventions that owe a debt to Michael Crichton and Neal Stephenson – only the root of all evil is no longer the Kremlin, the Pentagon or hubristic science, but the shady confluence of big business and big data.

Leila Majnoun, a young woman working for an American NGO in Burma, accidentally discovers two security agents guarding an unmapped patch of jungle close to the Chinese border. In Portland, Oregon, a lovable stoner named Leo Crane is fired from his job after his conspiratorial blog, “I Have Shared a Document with You”, alights on certain truths about a “secret world government that . . . keeps track of everything we do online”. Even his dealer cuts him off – “Like pot dealers are bound by the Hippocratic oath” – fearing for his sanity.

After Leo prints his blog on paper (“a truly dissident organ”) he is reacquainted with a friend from university, Mark Deveraux, a self-made, self-help guru whose twee psychobabble has caught the eye of the Zuckerbergian “squillionaire” James Straw, CEO of the “digital search and storage conglomerate” SineCo.

SineCo is the North American front for “The Committee”, an evil group described by one of the counter-conspiracy hackers hoping to destroy it as a “cabal of businessmen and some other bad guys . . . planning an electronic coup so that they will control the storage and transmission of all the information in the world”, the endpoint of which will be a “targeted genocide” whereby “big computers [will decide] which 5 per cent of the population should live”. (Shafer and Cohen both make frequent reference to the Holocaust, engineered by another group of utopians hell-bent on creating “solutions” for society.)

The hackers – who, in a touch straight out of DeLillo, lie low in Ikea showrooms across the globe – plan to recruit Shafer’s trio of characters by means of an “eye test”, a red-pill-blue-pill-type initiation during which a 15-digit number is generated to “represent some immutable and unique quality” for each user. (Leo’s number, it turns out, is the square root of Leila’s, the clincher in a late romantic plotline that feels a little bolted-on.)

A primary theme of both WTF and Book of Numbers is the reduction of human beings to countable data, yet it is never fully clear how comfortable the reader should be with these anti-corporate freedom fighters. WTF works smoothly as a thriller, but its main innovations – whale-like data centres dropped into ocean trenches, digital contact lenses and photosensitive computers indistinguishable from plants – make it feel a tad gimmicky and old-fashioned, using last year’s language to describe a revolution in thought and practice.

Repurposing language is Joshua Cohen’s greatest strength. Book of Numbers, the ­prolific American polymath’s fourth novel (at only 34), continues to expand on themes put down in his 2012 story collection, Four New Messages. It is ostensibly about an unsuccessful writer named Joshua Cohen – whose only published work was released on 10 September 2001 and sank without a trace. Cohen is commissioned to ghostwrite the memoirs of another Joshua Cohen, the “chillionaire” founder of the Google-like The plot of the novel, however, is of secondary interest next to the restless, polyphonous, neologising voice in which it is told. Simply put, the novel sounds like the internet.

Over close to 600 frequently maddening pages, we are given the writer Cohen’s interviews with “Principal” across various exotic locales, his jaunty efforts to write up the commission (complete with strikethroughs, revisions and notes), emails from concerned friends and colleagues, Tristram Shandy-style digressions on topics from Hinduism to the motifs on euro notes and, close to the end of the book, a blog by ­Cohen’s wife: a punctuation-light meditation that pastiches the Penelope episode at the end of Ulysses.

When Principal speaks of himself he does so in the second-person plural – a “we” that seems to represent the blended consciousness of the cloud. Words are abbreviated (David Foster Wallace’s beloved “w/r/t” – “with regard to” – appears often) or slammed together to make robotic neologisms. Principal constructs sentences like code; his grammar is functional and unrelenting. His sprawling account of charts its first 40 years, from a basement-run “Online Phonebook” to a tax-dodging, state-surpassing, extraterritorial leviathan, powered by a sense of eschatological belief that the desert of the book will be exchanged for the promised land of online. (A fair amount of the novel takes place in the Emirates, “which would be like Switzerland . . . but for the future money, which is information”. As Cohen pointed out in a recent interview, the Hebrew name for the biblical Book of Numbers translates as “‘In the desert’ . . . [a place] where a people is formed”.)

WTF and Book of Numbers do not represent “the first and last word on our age”, as Tom McCarthy’s protagonist “U” tries to in the Booker-nominated Satin Island. As unruly and incoherent as they often are, it is pleasing to see a crop of new novels engaging with internet culture, rather than lamenting or ignoring it (there is a trap laid in Cohen’s first line: “If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off”). It’s especially impressive given that so many of us remain too bewildered or naive to comprehend the possibilities and dangers it might represent. We remain, as Leila describes herself, “like a medieval peasant confounded by books and easily impressed by stained glass”.

Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers is out now from Harvill Secker (£18.99) and David Shafer's Whisky Tango Foxtrot from Penguin (£8.99)

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist