By Dave Eggers
All that happens must be known. Privacy is theft. These are the unofficial mottoes of the Google/Facebook/PayPal hybrid that gives its name to Eggers’s unsettlingly plausible new novel. Not quite science fiction and not exactly a cautionary tale (though it’s preachy on issues that Internet 2.0 Users are well aware of), the book envisions the logical end to the “catalog all information/connect everyone” credos espoused by major tech firms—an end that just so happens to suggest the world of 1984 in its infancy.
The story, revolving around an entry-level employee who evolves from skeptic to true believer, is a page-turner, though it lacks the linguistic somersaults for which Eggers’s fiction is usually known. (Its straightforward plotting and distrustful awe of technology make it read like a newly discovered Michael Crichton book with a dash of John Grisham.) But even if he isn’t pushing himself stylistically, Eggers creates a vivid and detailed reality, at first suggesting a quiet satire of religion—Google as cult, where brainwashed employees get physically sick at unreturned evites or experiences that aren’t documented and shared—but then reveals more political targets, exploring the privatization of public services and the end of personal privacy.
It’s convincing but not especially chilling, as the Circle isn’t much of a villain. Commendably, Eggers shows what makes the company attractive, illustrating how a series of positive developments can lead to something harrowing, but the corporate overlords seem more misguided than malicious, and the supposed end-of-the-world stakes at the climax feel hyperbolic. Even in the genre’s classics, dystopian settings are more symbolic than credible, one-sided in a way that makes them feel simplistic. (A truly daring work would provide a credible voice to argue for the positives of Brave New World’s society.) Circle doesn’t have this problem, and its realism drives its tension beyond the story and into the real world. Of course total knowledge means the eradication of privacy. Of course altruistic aims obscure coporate interests. Of course the proliferation of social media leads to the ostracism of those who shun it. Of course.
Stories like The Circle wilt in the shadow of 1984, but this feels like a vital update to Orwell, creating a real sense of unease about where the wonderful toys we have can lead us. For anyone even slightly technophobic, the Circle’s goal of “going transparent” is deeply troubling. This is the dark side of connecting. Big Brother, after all, is a member of the family.