In 2010, Irish author Julian Gough created a stir when he called out the Irish writing establishment for not writing about anything contemporary. In 2018 he apologised to the likes of Colm Tóibín and John Banville. As he said in a recent interview with the Irish Times:
‘… like a big eejit I projected that on to other people and said, why aren’t they writing the novel I want to see. Of course, I have to write the book I want to see.’
And now he has. Connect is a big-ideas technothriller with a strong central relationship, but also with roots in cyberpunk, biopunk and Terminator-style crazy artificial-intelligence science fiction.
Connect opens in the not too distant future. Naomi Chiang and her 18-year-old son, Colt, live on the fringes of Las Vegas. Nancy is a bioresearcher with some startling ideas about cellular regrowth. Although never directly stated, Colt is somewhere on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum and spends most of his life in a virtual reality that he and other gamers have collaboratively built. This is not a dystopia but a slightly more connected future with intelligent appliances, self-driving cars and more immersive virtual technology. A believable and achievable day after tomorrow:
[Naomi] opens the fridge again, and takes out the cool silver tin in which she keeps the fresh ground coffee …
‘Coffee inhibits absorption,’ says the fridge, and Naomi knows she’s projecting, but… the fridge sounds sad. Worse; disappointed in her. ‘Drinking coffee is not recommended within an hour of …’
‘Oh shut up,’ says Naomi.
It shuts up.
Things start to go wrong after Colt submits one of his mother’s papers to a conference and convinces her to fly to New York to deliver it. While she is away she comes to the attention of her ex-husband Ryan, an Afghanistan war veteran who now works for the NDSA, a pumped-up national security organisation. Because of the paper’s military applications, his organisation manages to stop its publication and distribution and then tries to strongarm her into working for it:
‘The Government, I assume the NDSA, is erasing all those copies from all delegate devices and blocking transmission.’
‘But you can’t eradicate a piece of information once it’s out …’
‘Oh, certainly, it’s almost impossible to kill all copies of anything. But once people are afraid to pass it on, or receive it, then it’s effectively dead. A file that can’t copy itself, locked off on a single machine, is essentially dormant …Rather like hygiene, and bacteria. Ideas have to spread to do damage. If you can wipe out 99% of the population, and stop the remainder from spreading, you have functional success …’
But Colt has his own agenda, and while his mother is away he breaks into her lab and uses her experiments on himself, in effect supercharging his brain into what could be a next evolutionary step:
… and the entire ocean comes at him, unblocked, unfiltered; the ocean of information, the ocean of sight and sound and vision and taste and touch and it should be overwhelming but it is not, because something has happened to his brain; something amazing, something beautiful has happened to his brain; and now he can think as fast as he has always wished he could think.
From that point the novel becomes a race-against-time technothriller. The military want both Naomi’s research and Colt’s brain. And when they fail to obtain either, the two become targets and go on the run. Given the ubiquity of the surveillance state, it is only Colt’s heightened abilities that keep them ahead of the curve. That does not prevent Naomi from having her own action-hero moments.
Gough often uses the staccato style of thrillers – short sentences full of verbs, obvious statements – to drive his narrative. And while there is plenty of action to keep readers engaged, Gough is actually more interested in the ideas. Right from the beginning, the militarisation of science and the control of information are front and centre. Naomi’s paper is pulled because of the argument, What if the bad guys get it? Similarly, the ethics of the emergent big bad, an artificially intelligent ‘immunisation system’ for America run by surveillance and drones, is debated. Not got the first time, Gough uses biological metaphors to explain the theory behind the system:
‘We can hold five, maybe six items in working memory, and we’re expected to run America. It’s an illusion. Delusion. But the system as a whole knows enough to make a judgement.’
‘But what if it’s wrong,’ says Colt. ‘What if it’s triggered too easily, or by a false signal?’
Ryan shrugs. ‘Sometimes an immune system will kill a healthy cell. But that’s the price you pay for staying healthy.’
Also central to the concerns of the book is the sheer power of the state to track individuals through technology and their use of it. When Naomi and Colt are on the run, it is their connectedness, through phones and credit cards and even facial recognition that creates the greatest threat in a similar way to movies like Enemy of the State or the machinations of the security forces in the Bourne films. So much so that its absence is a cause for celebration:
Naomi doesn’t even look at the sky. She knows they aren’t being observed, she can feel it. And it feels good.
Not just to have shaken off the drones.
My God, she thinks, I’ve been observed all my life.
My father; my mother; the kids at school; all those other students, judging; lab techs; workmates; Ryan; the cops; God; Donnie; the NSA; NDSA.
All those observers in my head, finally gone off duty.
At times, Connect feels a little like a modern reboot of that 1980s movie War Games, in which a plucky computer programmer takes on the might of the US defence establishment, which is backed by an artificial intelligence. But this is 30 years on, post the cyberpunk revolution of William Gibson, post the Terminator franchise and post gamer-led fantasies like Ready Player One. So that the programmer battles in a virtual space and the artificial intelligence does more than just play tic- tac-toe. But Gough reflects the conversation between teen and machine and considers the way such a system might have the capacity to learn beyond its military programming.
In both science fiction and scientific terms what Gough is playing with is often called the Singularity. That is, when computers are able to draw on enough network capacity to mimic the activity of the human brain and achieve sentience. More than cutely, Gough explains in the book itself why this fictional possibility will end up being true, and along the way considers the power of science-fiction writers to imagine a future that eventually comes to pass. Plenty of writers and theorists have posited the emergence of intelligence from the massive computer interconnectivity that we have created. The question is always whether that emergence is going to be a negative (think Skynet from the Terminator franchise), positive (Robert J Sawyer’s WWW series) or something altogether unimaginable. While he should trust himself to let the plot, characters and even extended metaphors bring this out, Gough uses multiple epigraphs from authors like Ray Kurzweil and Philip K Dick to make sure that readers get the point.
It feels as if, in the end, that Gough has achieved his aim of writing an Irish novel in the style of William Gibson that has some new things to say about some long-standing science-fiction ideas. And while the ending is a little hokey (complete with aphorisms like ‘Love is an interface between you and the universe’), readers will have plenty of fun getting there and plenty to think about.
This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.