is the second poll-winning
book, and the second novel by Hari Kunzru
, who made the most recent Granta list
largely on the back of his much-praised debut, The Impressionist
. At one notorious
point, when he declined
the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize
due to (an understandable) dislike of its sponsor
, Kunzru's politics and personality threatened to overwhelm his writing. But Transmission
, though it is certainly political in parts, is also focused on technology and the modern world (one review
wrestled with the description 'geek lit'), and - interestingly to me - it seems to echo some aspects of Pattern Recognition
, William Gibson
's lauded and not-quite-mimetic novel from last year.
Kunzru's personal interest in the moments when today becomes tomorrow is indicated by some of the writing collected
on his website
(which also contains such gems as an MS-Word-autosummarised version
of The Impressionist
). Gibson's interest in the same was identified with a much-cited
passage from Pattern Recognition
that, it was suggested, encapsulated his views. How can a writer - how can the 'father of cyberpunk', no less - best examine the changing present?
"We have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which 'now' was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents' have insufficient 'now' to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. [...] We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment's scenarios. Pattern recognition." (p.57)
Gibson's answer was to write about the present using the techniques of science fiction. Transmission
's answer is to tell the story of three people - Arjun Mehta, computer programmer, geek, and economic migrant; Guy Swift, brand-consultant and self-styled corporate visionary; and Leela Zahir, darling of Bollywood - and a ubiquitous symbol of technological distress: a computer virus. A sort of mega-virus, in fact. On the damage scale, this one is a couple of rungs up the exponential ladder from iloveyou.vbs or the Sasser worm, and it's what ties the novel's characters together. Arjun lands a job at an antiviral software company; Guy's business is of exactly the sort to be most damaged by unwanted downtime; and Leela is the bait. Leela's likeness is forwarded by the virus, as an attachment that trips up hasty, unwary users.
For most of the novel, Arjun is the main character. We follow him from India to the United States, where his yearning for the American Dream is first cruelly denied, then tentatively fulfilled, then twisted up again and (seemingly) thrown away. Kunzru's portrayal of the geek as hero is engaging and sympathetic. Possibly not coincidentally, the first of the book's acknowledgements goes to Danny O'Brien
; but however it was acquired, Kunzru captures geek life well, with an ear for idiom ('Redmond was a town with nice graphics and an intuitive user interface. His kind of town,' p51), and an eye for details.
The other characters are less kindly drawn, in particular Guy, who talks - and even thinks! - in teeth-grindingly meaningless, but often painfully funny, management-speak. Guy's career, and in fact his whole life, is transparently a victory of style over substance and confidence over capability. As his company, Tomorrow* [sic], appears successful but is in fact on the brink of financial ruin, so too does his personal life appear stable but in fact teeter on the edge of crisis. And virus-girl, Leela Zahir, is, almost inevitably, more of a symbol than a character. Suddenly catapulted to global infamy, we see her almost entirely through the eyes of others. Sometimes those views are flattering, sometimes they are not, but always they tell us most about the person doing the viewing.
The primary plot, concerning the release and impact of the virus, develops at a pace faster than 'slow' but slower than 'fast', and the novel's themes - the impacts of globalisation, migration and technology - are outlined in a gently satirical tone. Transmission
remains light throughout, with several deliberately absurd incongruities (Bollywood filming on location in Scotland, for example), and Kunzru is careful that his potentially dense material should not overwhelm his story. The result is a book that is a pleasure to read, if perhaps a little lightweight.
So now we come back to the matter that first piqued my curiousity: how Transmission
might be like or unlike Pattern Recognition
. I'm not trying to argue, by the way, that Transmission
is science fiction; it isn't. But it does seem to me that maybe the book can be read as approaching some of the same ground that Gibson covered in Pattern Recognition
. Both are clearly attempts to understand modern life in relation to an age of global communication, but the differing backgrounds of the two authors - from almost polar opposite ends of the literary spectrum - lead them to tackle similar ideas in different ways, and I find the comparisons fascinating.
For instance, take the central issue of how a writer can capture the modern world. Kunzru's today still feels mostly comprehensible, recognisable, even in the midst of technological meltdown. By contrast, in Gibson's almost-tomorrow there's a pervasive sense that control has, at some point, been lost. For Kunzru, it still makes sense to talk about countries - India, America, Europe. Gibson, by contrast, is more focused on cities, as if his horizon of understanding is that much closer: New York, Tokyo, London. When Kunzru steps just beyond reality, he creates a widely-transmitted virus. When Gibson does the same thing, he invents a personal condition - Cayce Pollard's brand allergy.
I would argue that Cayce also betrays the science fiction heritage of Gibson's book simply by being herself. She's a cool-hunter, as cutting-edge modern as you could hope for, but she's not as real
as everygeek Arjun. We all know an Arjun (hell, some of us are
Arjun); we are unlikely to meet Cayce, who seems almost a cyberpunk heroine in contemporary garb. It's a similar story with the plot. Though both books are concerned with the impacts of brands and marketing - the power of public perception - the linear, conspiracy-esque plot of Pattern Recognition
is a million miles away from the scattered patchwork of vignettes offered by Transmission
The explanation of Kunzru's viewpoint - the central metaphor to match Gibson's statement of intent - is first outlined roughly halfway through the novel:
At the boundaries of any complex event, unity starts to break down. Recollections differ. Fact shades irretrievably into interpretation. How many people must be involved for certainty to dissipate? The answer, according to information theorists, is two. As soon as there is a sender, a receiver, a transmission medium and a message, there is a chance for noise to corrupt the signal. (p.147)
Kunzru builds this conceit into the structure of his narrative, dividing it into two unequal parts: 250-odd pages of 'signal', and thirty or so pages of 'noise'. I said before that Kunzru's today was mostly
comprehensible; as the novel's structure maybe suggests, and in stark contrast to the neatly-dovetailed close of Pattern Recognition
, that changes in the final pages. Transmission
closes with a certain amount of decoherence and disappearance - a vaguely sfnal refusal of definite answers that, in fact, runs right up until the final sentence. It would be fair to say that Transmission
begins in certainty and ends in noise, whilst Pattern Recognition
opens in mystery and closes with answers. Between the two novels, somewhere, is the moment when today becomes tomorrow.
According to conspiracy theorists, there is only one possible explanation, only one pattern that makes sense. (p.281)
Exit Kunzru. Enter Gibson?
Read them both, and see what you think.