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.

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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 tetration.com. 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 tetration.com 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 an editor at 032c magazine 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