Around and Around in a Vicious Circle

An award winner, some interesting new releases and a prescient warning about the future.

Issue #27: Sunday 7 August 2022


Bookish News

General News

Miles Franklin Award Winner: Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down

Date: 20 July 2022.

Maggie (later Josie, then Holly) is raised in foster care by families who are sometimes safe, often not. Her young life is punctuated by abuse, trauma and abandonment, with brief periods of connection offering some respite. This deep loneliness follows her in (and out of) all of her relationships, even in adulthood, as Maggie learns that to keep herself safe means keeping secrets. After enduring trauma that is so much – too much at times – for one person, Maggie runs away from her life, stepping wholly into a new identity in a new country, and burying her painful past. But her trauma and abandonment follow her…. (Readings review).

Another win for Text Publishing, one of Australia’s best publishing houses.

More details

New and Upcoming Releases

The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley

Based on real events in a surreal Soviet city, and told with bestselling author Natasha Pulley’s inimitable style, The Half Life of Valery K is a sweeping historical adventure.

I really liked this author’s novel The Kingdoms, and this sounds intriguing so this will be a ‘must read’.

Buy it at Readings

Hovering by Rhett Davis

A spectacular debut novel from one of Australia’s most exciting new writers. Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award, Hovering crosses genres, literary styles and conventions to create a powerful and kaleidoscopic story about three people struggling to find connection in a chaotic and impermanent world.

“Crossing genres” sounds good to me.

Buy it at Readings


My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

The Circle by Dave Eggers

This novel was written about ten years ago. Given that it deals very much with social networks and powerful technology companies, you would think that by now it would be well out of date. That’s not the case, however, and given when it was written I think we can say that it was extremely prescient.

The novel is meant as a warning, and it succeeds in that. In many ways it’s quite disturbing, and exemplifies the phrase “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions”.

The focus of the story is a huge technology corporation called The Circle, which combines a social network like Facebook and a search engine like Google with the device manufacturing capabilities of Apple, but it has much wider ambitions than any of those organisations.

We’re introduced to the organisation through the experiences of young Mae Holland, who is thrilled to have landed a job at The Circle through the influence of a friend, Annie.

As she is shown around the huge campus with its incredibly good facilities for staff, we discover more and more about The Circle and what it is trying to do. I must confess that I found this part of the book a tedious slog, perhaps because we’re now so familiar with these kinds of high-tech, superior quality facilities which have been developed in the real world, and therefore none of it seemed very surprising or particularly interesting.

As the book progresses, however, we see Mae being transformed from a nervous outsider into a valued employee and eventually into a whole-hearted devotee of the Circle’s plans. But these plans become more and more creepy, more and more invasive, more and more dismissive of privacy concerns.

You may recall the statement attributed to Scott McNeally of Sun Microsystems in 1999: “You have no privacy. Get over it”. That’s certainly the philosophy of The Circle, whose motto is: ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN. To this effect, The Circle’s engineers have developed high definition minature cameras which wirelessly connect to the Internet, broadcasting continually. They are installing millions of them all over the world, saying that they will reduce crime, terrorism and the power of autocratic states. The Circle is pushing for all politicians to go “transparent”: to wear personal video cameras all of the time that broadcast their every move and every word. They are also pushing their own payment system, planning to take over most world currencies.

When they meet resistance from politicians, well that’s not really a problem. The Circle controls the search engine which everyone now uses. Is it any surprise that politicians who oppose The Circle are suddenly revealed as having connections to child pornography rings, or having their secret bank accounts exposed? If you control everyone’s access to information, you control everything.

The protagonist, Mae Holland, goes through a process with several embarrasing ups and downs, which pushes her more and more to accept all of The Circle’s plans as benign, for the good of humankind, forcing her and us all to be our “better selves”. And Mae’s character arc is where the novel lost me. She becomes an unlikeable and annoying main character with no redeeming features and so I don’t think the book works very well as a novel.

Mae continues act in ways in which she clearly shouldn’t be acting, making one bad decision after another. One of those books where I want to shout at the character “don’t do that, you idiot!” The more Mae accepts The Circle’s philosophy, the more she drives away her parents and her old friends,

There is another plot thread in which Mae encounters a strange individual, a youngish man but with prematurely grey hair, who calls himself Kalden. She meets him at infrequent intervals and becomes sexually involved with him, but nevertheless can’t pin him down as to exactly in what department he works or what he does there. Is he a spy or an intruder? Yet security within the Circle is of course intense and there are cameras everywhere. This plot thread had potential to be interesting and does help build some tension, but when the resolution of the mystery arrives, I felt it was pretty low key, and Mae’s response to it doesn’t improve our impression of her character.

Mae’s devotion to the Circle’s philosophy culminates in a terrible episode where she is broadcasting her life to the entire world, having gone “transparent” herself, and decides to use the power of The Circle to track down a previous lover who has tried to get away from the increasingly ubiquitous surveillance. This becomes a savage public hunt and ends with the man’s suicide on camera. But even this isn’t enough to sway Mae from her devotion to The Circle. She comes up with her own set of three principles, clearly echoing those of Orwell’s 1984:

SECRETS ARE LIES
SHARING IS CARING
PRIVACY IS THEFT

These principles are then enshrined in The Circle and published and repeated through all of The Circle’s outlets, which are many.

You could definitely argue that The Circle is like an inverted 1984 with the power of the State now invested in a massive corporation. But instead of the single surveillance camera inside Winston Smith’s room, The Circle would have installed a dozen and had him wear one around his neck. And the majority of people, like Mae Holland, would welcome that, would wear those cameras voluntarily and joyfully and think that it was all for the common good.

Like 1984 and like Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, Egger’s The Circle is a powerful polemic and a dire warning of what the future could bring.

Currently Reading

The Daughters of Eve by Nina D. Campbell

Another debut crime novel by an Australian author. Enjoying it so far, though occasionally the author tries too much to sound hard-bitten. Opening your novel with: “He folded like a cheap suit after church on Sunday” strikes me as trying to sound too much like Raymond Chandler.

Waiting on the Shelf


And that’s your lot! See you next time.

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