A Critical Mass to Escape Dystopia

51sdqvpe3gl-_sx333_bo1204203200_Do you ever feel oppressed by the relentless coercion to spend ever more of your time online, staring at the screen, jumping through the hoops imposed by organisations of every kind? Do you detect the synergy between this and the interests of big business allied with government to control and exploit us as compliant worker-consumers, and at the same time to distract us with a barrage of images and words from the ongoing demolition of our economic security, our health, and the beauty of our physical surroundings?

Alexandra Claire’s Random Walk extrapolates all this into a future-primitive dystopia in which an all-powerful company, e-Tel, manages the population of a flood-ruined Welsh city by means of a tracking chip implanted under your skin at birth, a Receiver that floods your perception with virtual-reality Xperiences, a Box that runs your home, satellites able to detect the heat of living bodies from space, and ruthless Guards who’ll kill anyone who tries to steal from the polythene-tented Food Fields outside the city because they lack enough work credit to buy food.

Not everyone is compliant, however. Remi spends his nights running across rooftops on a mission to disable e-Tel’s information transmitters. Eight-year-old Osian has thrown his Receiver in the river because he couldn’t bear the noise in his head. Lisa has come from the wild countryside where people grow their own food outside e-Tel’s control. Only now she has the chance of a privileged position inside the company machine.

In this world, information technology has ceased to have any positive aspect. It serves only tyranny. Sites of resistance must be found elsewhere: in the physicality of bodies able to leap across rooftops and of minds able to pick a ‘random walk’ to dodge surveillance computers seeking predictable patterns; in the bonds of affection between people, expressed in the touching of bodies and the speaking of Welsh words – ‘bach’, ‘cwtch’, ‘calon’, ‘fy nghariad’ – redolent of endearment.

For me, the novel’s execution doesn’t quite match the cogency of its insights. I found the prose rather flat, and more imaginative work is needed to evoke a convincing future world, beyond the basic apparatus of e-Tel and the circumstances of the protagonists. The city is supposed to be burdened with teeming masses, but the presence of other people is referred to so rarely that in most scenes my mind’s eye pictured the characters moving through what seemed an empty city. Moreover, there’s no sense of how the situation in this city fits in with what’s going on in the rest of the world – and this can’t really be justified by regarding the story as what Le Guin calls a ‘psychomyth’, isolated in its own pocket universe, since it’s explicitly set in twenty-first-century Wales.

The part I enjoyed best was, in fact, the self-justifying speech by e-Tel director Oswald White, the equivalent of O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four. There’s a telling irony in his insistence the Random Walkers must not be allowed to become a critical mass that would cause the social order to change.

This review was first published in Vector, No. 271, 2012

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