Feed was recommended to me by Robin Sloan. He of Snarkmarket, he of the Fish Tap Essay, he the author, he the self-styled media inventor.
(He also recommended it to the other two hundred and eighty four thousand or so people who follow him on Twitter.)
His tweet (linked above) describes it as an “almost impossibly prescient book” and I one-click-Kindle-bought it on the spot.
Unfortunately Robin was right. It is indeed impossible for a book to be that prescient.
Feed takes place in a post Google Glass world. Wearable technology has been replaced by embedded technology. The Internet, the Feed, is irrevocably implanted in a procedure that takes place in most children’s kindergarten years. To not be “fed” is to be underprivileged, and socially and professionally handicapped.
I don’t know when they first had feeds. Like maybe, fifty or a hundred years ago. Before that, they had to use their hands and their eyes. Computers were all outside the body. They carried them around outside of them, in their hands, like if you carried your lungs in a briefcase and opened it to breathe.
For Feed to be as prescient as advertised it needs to be read as an exercise in futurology.
And in that respect it sadly disappoints. I would actually file it under lightweight sci-fi.
And I’m not a sci-fi fan.
I like science as much as the next man. More probably given that I have an engineering degree.
But I don’t like it when science is the point of a story.
The purpose of science in science fiction is revelation. Human revelation. If the introduction of future technology does not reveal something profound about ourselves then what is the point?
My favourite science fiction storytelling concept (ever) is the fabulous Machine Of Death.
The machine in question doesn’t kill people. It tells them semi-clearly, semi-cryptically, but unerringly how they are going to die. Not when, how.
The collection of short stories that has been generated by this simple provocation is startlingly varied in nature. But what they all have in common is that the underlying science is not the point of the story. It is a catalyst for human insight. For instance, in one story, knowledge of one’s cause of death is a right of passage on your sixteenth birthday. It becomes another source of teenage angst. Something to worry about beforehand. Something that determines your social status afterwards.
The Machine is a platform for the telling of stories about humanity.
By comparison, the Feed isn’t.
Feed mostly falls short in respect of human insight.
The science, sadly, is the point of the story. Mostly it is. And, for the most part, thinly and predictably so.
Retargeted advertising is already a scourge on the Internet. And so it is hardly surprising that it is much worse when the Feed is inside your head, neurologically entwined, and the line between fulfilling your wants and influencing them is blurred.
It’s hard to be impressed by a caricature future in which inefficient forests have been cleared to make way for oxygen factories.
Or where a trip into the “countryside” includes a visit to a filet mignon farm. Hedges of beef irrigated with blood via an artificial vascular system.
And where the main characters in the book meet in a zero gravity nightclub on the moon.
It is first-base science.
First-base science against a first-base dystopian backdrop. (Rampant over-population, nasty lesions which we assume to be a Feed side-effect, and hinted at but never fully explained civil unrest and international tensions).
There are some mildly amusing and more interesting concepts, however.
For instance, who needs drugs when the Feed is hard wired to your nervous system? The young funsters in Feed get their kicks by going “Mal”. They deliberately cause their Feeds to malfunction by logging into underground Swedish sites that temporarily fry everything. Like downloading LSD and magic mushrooms straight into your subconscious.
And the implications of hacking are more severe when it is your head that is being hacked. Indeed it is an episode of head hacking that reveals a fatal flaw in the Feed of Violet, shortly after she and Titus meet.
Violet and Titus are then human interest in Feed. For which read the interest.
Violet’s Feed is slowly but surely crashing on her. Which means that her body and her life are crashing on her too.
She needs help and support.
This is not forthcoming from the mega corporations behind the Feed. Violet is the future version of today’s privacy activists. She has made an art form out of confusing the Feed’s segmentation and profiling algorithms. Sadly for her this means that they are not interested when she cries for tech support.
We’re sorry Violet Durn. Unfortunately, FeedTech and other investors reviewed your purchasing history, and we don’t feel that you would be a reliable investment at this time. No one could get what we call a “handle” on your shopping habits, like for example you asking for information about all those wow and brag products and then never buying anything. We have to inform you that our corporate investors were like, “What’s doing with this?” Sorry – I’m afraid you’ll just have to work with your feed the way it is.
And so she turns to Titus.
Which is when Feed stops being flimsy sci-fi and becomes a nicely observed, sensitively written tragedy.
Mr Anderson can write.
“We Americans,” he said, “are interested only in the consumption of our products. We have no interest in how they were produced, or what happens to them” – he pointed at his daughter – “what happens to them once we discard them, once we throw them away.”
“I didn’t,” I said. “I didn’t throw her away.”
“And the worst thing,” he said, ” is that you made her apologise. Toward the end. I didn’t say anything to her, but she told me she was apologising to you for what she said, for how she behaved. You made her apologise for sickness. For her courage. You made her feel sorry for dying.”
This section of the book is so good that it reminded me of my favourite Beatles song – For No One. Two minutes of genius that beautifully, excruciatingly captures the utter desolation of unrequited love.
That is what Titus does to Violet. As she and her Feed simultaneously crash she becomes desperate to live as much as she can as intensely as she can. She also becomes concerned for her Feed-dependent memories and feelings. So she tries to back them up by sending streams of consciousness to Titus for him to hold on her behalf.
He ignores her, he deletes her messages and, worst of all, pretends never to have received them. This last act makes Violet fear even more for the extent of her deterioration. What hope if her heartfelt outpouring is for nought?
At the end of the Kindle version of Feed there is a series of book club style discussion questions.
I don’t like the idiot’s guide tone in which they are written.
But the content is interesting nonetheless. Most of the questions focus on the Feed itself.
In Feed, product information flows directly, and unceasingly, to the brain. How deeply have commercial messages penetrated your own day-to-day life. Does the presence of that advertising bother you? Are there things about it that you like and that you would miss?
Mildly annoying isn’t it?
Such are the obvious questions raised by Feed. And it is doubtless the nature of the book’s subject matter that prompted suggestions of almost impossible prescience.
Even if the idea behind Feed did become technically possible, would people really accept it and allow it to happen on a mass scale? The book does not discuss this. Mass adoption has already occurred. Those who are without the Feed have not rejected it on moral grounds. They simply can’t afford it.
There would be more to commend this book if it had attempted to explore the ethics of Feed technology. Alas no.
And it is telling that there is only one discussion question about the most interesting aspect of the story. Namely misplaced love and juvenile callousness.
When Violet is gravely ill, Titus mostly ignores her messages and rejects her pleas. What does Violet need from Titus? Why doesn’t he give it to her? Why does she believe he’s different from his friends? Is he?
That indeed is the question.
Tags: book review, Feed, M T Anderson