Welcome to Qualityland by Marc-Uwe Kling (translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle), the newest book in the over-the-top, overly-obvious but comical dystopian landscape. From the cover onwards, Kling invites readers to immerse themselves in the marketing-meets-social-media world he has created (albeit with some fairly solid antecedents), where everyone is graded and encouraged to find partners within their level (think any number of Black Mirror episodes) and things arrive at your door by drone before you even know you need them (QualityLand preceded it, but Rob Hart’s The Warehouse also explores this territory). But it’s a world very much like ours:
… there was an economic crisis of such severity it became known as the crisis of the century. It was the third crisis of the century within just a decade… [T]he government turned to help from Big Business Consulting (BBC) who decided that what the country needed most was a new name. The old one was worn-out and, according to surveys, only inspired die-hard nationalists with minimal buying power.
And so QualityLand was born, if only so that any product made there could be branded ‘Made in QualityLand’.
In QualityLand everything, including literary classics, has been personalised based on an algorithm attuned to your personality, likes and dislikes. Throughout the book, Kling demonstrates this with ads for personalised products like this one:
We offer personalised literature you are guaranteed to like!
The Trial FOR YOU
Out of the blue, a bank employee is accused of committing a crime. But he also knows this: he is innocent. First he flees, but then he decides to take the law into his own hands. Armed with his rifle, he fights his way through the system until he is able to prove his innocence. A straight-forward thriller which leaves no questions unanswered.
But the heart of the book is the story of Peter Jobless, an ordinary, low-level nobody who runs a robot recycling shop. In the QualityLand social credit system, Peter is just hanging on above level 10 (below that he would be termed ‘useless’) and pretty soon his girlfriend has left him to level up:
Sandra is about to respond when she receives a message… She twitches her nose and the message appears on her glasses: ‘A new notification from QualityPartner PartnerCare: ‘Hello Sandra. A new, better partner at a higher level is now available to you. If you would like to connect with him choose OK now.’
Sandra looks at Peter. He gives her a friendly smile. She smiles back. Then she focusses her pupils on OK.
But the incident that breaks Peter and sends him on his odyssey of discovery, is the delivery of a pink, dolphin-shaped vibrator from TheShop. When he is unable to return it because the algorithm that decides what people need is never wrong, he discovers that the all-knowing algorithm does not, in fact, know anything about him.
Readers of this type of satire will recognise the everyman character of Peter. He is Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but also Winston Smith from 1984. On his journey he will discover depths within himself and meet Kiki, a beautiful, rebellious woman (in some respects a manic pixie dream girl), who will both help him and have a relationship with him. Kiki explains that the shopping algorithm probably has him confused with someone else and there is nothing he can do about it:
‘Corrections cost money. The ultimate goal of algorithms is to generate more profit. As long as they do that no one gives a crap about whether some poor shmuck didn’t get the job because it says in the profile of some other guy with the same name that he once pissed in his boss’s swimming pool. After all, no one will tell him why he didn’t get the job. So how could he complain? And to whom?’
Peter’s quest then becomes to complain to those at the highest level. To find the man who runs TheShop and point out how the algorithms are flawed. Not only flawed but dangerous, allowing racists to connect with each other and reaffirm their views. How the internet creates ‘opinion islands’ that make it ‘okay to write hate posts, because everyone they know is writing hate posts’.
The parallel tale to Peter’s is of an artificially intelligent robot called John of Us, who is running for president against a man who used to be a celebrity chef. John knows everything and always tells the truth, which is a problem for both his handler and his party as they start to lose ground to the opposition, who will essentially say anything to gain power. Through this plotline, Kling takes aim at broader social concerns:
[John says:] ‘Fleeing from isolation, lack of purpose and loss of identity, the people flock towards all offerings that give the illusion of purpose and community, no matter how moronic they might be. And that’s what nationalism has in common with fundamentalism. They are both moronic offerings that give the illusion of community. I say illusion, because this community isn’t real; these ideologies aren’t about equitable participation, but on the contrary about veiling and fortification of social injustices.’
‘Wrong,’ [says Cook]. ‘That’s a lie. And I’m going to forbid any kind of veil once I’m president anyway.’
There is a lot to chew on in QualityLand – the power of the internet, the malicious use (intentional and otherwise) of personal data, artificial intelligence (both Turing and Asimov get a workout here), the hypocrisy of commerce and politics. But despite the satirical setting, which can and does show these issues in action, Kling still often feels the need to spell things out to his readers:
‘Nonetheless we believed back [in 1995] that the internet could break the monopoly of the big companies. We thought that a market with countless alternatives would emerge, because with an online shop it was easier than ever to reach customers worldwide. But the exact opposite happened! The most powerful monopolies which have ever existed came into being.’
‘Despite the internet,’ says Peter.
‘Nonsense’ says the old man. ‘Because of the internet! It’s called the network effect. And it’s demonic.’
QualityLand is often funny but at other times it is, as Peter himself observes at one point, ‘too true to be funny’. Kling has plenty of points to make, most of them about a bunch of genies that are well and truly already out the bottle. But in using this type of over-the-top satire, Kling hopes to lull his readers into a sense of security (‘it could never happen here’) before ramming his points home (‘in many ways, it already has’). And in setting those points within a standard hero’s quest narrative (Peter the everyman takes on the system), he provides some little spark of hope that readers who get the point can actually make a difference. Given where we are at the moment, perhaps that is the best he can hope for.
This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.