Zed

Zed

Self-anointed guru of the Digital Age, Guy Matthias, CEO of Beetle, has become one of the world's most powerful and influential figures. Untaxed and ungoverned, his trans-Atlantic company essentially operates beyond the control of Governments or the law.But trouble is never far away, and for Guy a perfect storm is brewing: his wife wants to leave him, fed up with his...

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Title:Zed
Author:Joanna Kavenna
Rating:
Edition Language:English

Zed Reviews

  • Hugh

    Joanna Kavenna is becoming one of my favourite writers - her four previous novels (

    ,

    ,

    and

    ) are all intelligent and interesting in different ways, and her writing is often very funny. I must admit that I was a little nervous when I heard that her latest book was a dystopian fiction set in the near future, as this genre is not normally one that appeals to me as a reader. When I was offered a chance to read an uncorrected proof

    Joanna Kavenna is becoming one of my favourite writers - her four previous novels (

    ,

    ,

    and

    ) are all intelligent and interesting in different ways, and her writing is often very funny. I must admit that I was a little nervous when I heard that her latest book was a dystopian fiction set in the near future, as this genre is not normally one that appeals to me as a reader. When I was offered a chance to read an uncorrected proof copy by a friendly local bookshop, I couldn't resist it. Kavenna's imaginative vision is impressive, and the book is funny, clever, brilliantly realised and full of interesting philosophical ideas, but never loses track of the human (and often feminine) values at its core.

    The Britain of the novel is dominated both socially and politically by Beetle, a mega-corporation that embodies all of the most rapacious features of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft (to name just five). They have monopoly control of almost all aspects of life - their cryptocurrency is the only remaining legal currency, to earn it you need to work for them, and to work for them you need to wear a Beetleband, which monitors everything you do and contains a Veep (or VIPA - very intelligent personal assistant), and they also control the apparatus of state security via their network of security cameras and robotic policemen (ANTs). Each person has an associated life-chain, computed by an algorithm, which predicts all of their important decisions and fates, and the law now makes a prediction of future criminal behaviour an offence in its own right.

    The Beetle brand is owned by Guy Matthias, who sees himself as an idealistic visionary, and his project as essentially benevolent. However his personal life is messy - his wife is tired of his philandering and he uses lifechains to model his one night stands with a succession of brilliant young women. His internal communication system is conducted via Boardroom, a virtual reality system in which avatars meet in virtual rooms.

    The book is full of dark humour, and Kavenna clearly had great fun inventing the terminology, acronyms and the names of the Veeps, which are full of allusions. The Veeps conversations are also very entertaining, as they often fail to see the sense of a word and spout irrelevant history.

    The world of Beetle is disturbed when a man gets drunk and murders his wife and children. This has not been predicted by any of his lifechains, and the event is categorised as a Zed event. His arrest is bungled, resulting in an innocent man being murdered by an ANT, and the consequential chain of chaos threatens to destabilise the company, which effectively declares war on Zed events and creates its own simplified language Bespoke, making it mandatory for all interfaces with Beetle technology and resulting in more comedy of misunderstanding. There is also a human element to the destruction, as a group of maverick scientists succeed in building a new type of supercomputer which can hack Beetle's encryption system, and much of the second half of the book explores the chaos that ensues.

    The book is not by any means perfect - there are many ideas at play and some of these require digressive explanations, but I found the whole thing compulsively readable and at times laugh out loud funny, and it certainly made me think about many elements of our society, the forces that control it and what it means to be human. I really hope this book will find a wider readership.

  • Adam

    Joanna Kavenna’s

    is a pitch-dark comedy about an Orwellian future where Big Brother is not only watching but controls every aspect of society.

    Joanna Kavenna’s

    is a pitch-dark comedy about an Orwellian future where Big Brother is not only watching but controls every aspect of society.

    The dominant form of money is a cryptocurrency created and maintained by Beetle, and around 90% of the population works for the company, or a subsidiary of it. If something negative were to befall the company, then the public would never hear about it. Why? Well, it would be a matter of national security, as the issue would have to be first treated as a potential terrorist threat. And the good of society must come first, of course! Keep in mind, there’s freedom of choice. This is a free society, after all. No one is

    use Beetle’s technology. It’s just that they would be labeled unverified, so they wouldn’t have access to any Beetle jobs. Or transportation. Or money. But its their choice!

    Nightmarish, right? That’s not the worst part. The company has developed something called a lifechain, which is series of algorithms that predicts all possibilities of what a person might do on any given day. Probabilities are calculated with these lifechains and they are so accurate that Beetle has been able to influence the government to enact a law to “pre-arrest” someone before they commit a crime. The lifechain says they’re going to, so why wait until they do it? This saves everyone lots of time and grief! (This theme also appears in Philip K Dick’s short story, “Minority Report.”) Beetle has also invented ANT’s, which are headless droids, armed with guns, who are perfectly programmed to arrest and secure their targets, and in no way can anything go wrong, since lifechains and Beetle’s AI are perfect. What a perfect society! Guy Matthias, the head of Beetle, just keeps making society better and better! Citizen’s faces have become completely blank over the years so as not to express any kind of feeling in front of cameras or machines, and Guy is so proud that citizens are now able to live in a society without offending anyone!

    But, what’s this? Something starts to go wrong. The lifechain seems to have some errors. People commit horrible crimes without the lifechain predicting them. ANT’s start shooting innocents without provocation. Since the AI’s and lifechains are perfectly programmed, then it all must be attributed to human error, of course. Despite Beetle’s efforts, this error gap between perfection and reality starts to widen. This gap is called Zed, named after the last letter of the alphabet, representing all things that don’t quite fit within every paradigm. Undefinable, unquantifiable things, things that shouldn’t be. And Zed keeps getting bigger.

    Kavenna’s wry wit shines throughout the story; the humor is both sharp and depressing as it feels like some form of this future isn’t far off from becoming a reality. We view this society through the lens of several different characters: the head of Beetle, the nervous lackey, a tech-hating employee who sees through all the bullshit, a top newspaper reporter, a protesting citizen, and various A.I. Veeps. One of the most humorous and depressingly real scenarios is the adoption of something called Bespoke. Guy Matthias, the head of Beetle, was once part of a conversation where someone much smarter than him was using words that he didn’t understand. In response, he now wants to make communication simple enough for everyone to understand, so he invents a system that dumbs down vocabulary into fewer phrases to make it easier for everyone to communicate. It’s hilarious and frightening and hits too close for comfort.

    Even if you just take this story at face value, it is still an entertaining, intelligent, and thoughtful read.

    Zed

    8.0 / 10

  • Anna

    I reserved ‘Zed’ at the library when it was still on order, so it retains that divine New Book Smell. I was very excited to read it, as Kavenna’s

    was unexpectedly wonderful and ‘Zed’ appeared to be a zeitgeist novel about surveillance capitalism. And indeed, that is what it is. The contrast with

    is so strong that I’m rather surprised they’re by the same author. Whereas

    had a dreamlike, whimsical atmosphere, ‘Zed’ has a

    I reserved ‘Zed’ at the library when it was still on order, so it retains that divine New Book Smell. I was very excited to read it, as Kavenna’s

    was unexpectedly wonderful and ‘Zed’ appeared to be a zeitgeist novel about surveillance capitalism. And indeed, that is what it is. The contrast with

    is so strong that I’m rather surprised they’re by the same author. Whereas

    had a dreamlike, whimsical atmosphere, ‘Zed’ has a distinctively bleak and deadpan narrative voice. Although both are very well executed, I found

    more emotionally satisfying. The appeal of ‘Zed’ is more on the intellectual side, although I greatly appreciated the dark humour. The plot centres upon Beetle, which is essentially google five years from now. In near-future London, everyone wears BeetleBands that tell them to calm down, owns fridges that nag them to eat better, and uses Beetle’s cryptocurrency. Most unsettling of all, policing has been outsourced to Beetle algorithms and ANTs (Anti-Terror Droids). Of course, Beetle continues to espouse choice, freedom, etc, etc. The cast includes the extremely narcissistic CEO of Beetle, several of his underlings, and a few people who are trying to cause disruption. The title refers to an error term in the predictions made by Beetle. The ‘Zed’ unknown error triggers outbreaks of chaos and undermines Beetle’s reliability.

    Of the uncanny technologies mentioned in the book, I found ‘Bespeaking’ the most interesting. This is an extrapolation of that gmail feature that tells you how to respond to an email. (I hate that and have switched it off - which you can do now, although when first introduced this was not the case!) When videochatting, Beetle’s ‘Bespeak’ feature essentially dumbs down what you’re saying into what it thinks you meant. Automatic newspeak for the 21st century, in the name of clarity and efficiency. The problems that this causes for Guy, the CEO of Beetle, are very funny:

    I also found it very amusing when the AI personal assistants, all of whom have Dickensian names, are afflicted by Zed and start mocking humanity in a peculiarly existential manner. By contrast, the sections concerning an automated justice system in which people are to blame for being shot by robots were rather chilling. The court scenes have a distinct whiff of Kafka:

    Thus ‘Zed’ is a rather effective dark comedy of monopoly surveillance technology. I liked the little detail of the Beetle logo slowly metamorphosizing on the chapter title pages. The business about quantum computing, however, did not work as well. What held the book together so neatly was dialogue and narrative voice. Appropriately enough, the characters were largely ciphers. I found the ending rather less memorable and interesting than what had come before,

    Nonetheless, ‘Zed’ is the best satire of big tech that I’ve come across. It barely has to exaggerate and does so just enough to be both funny and alarming.

  • Paul

    I’m sat here writing this review on my notebook PC while my smartphone randomly provides new music based on previous choices I’ve made. Meanwhile, my smartwatch feeds me a constant stream of various e-mails and alerts. Technology is just super convenient isn’t it? That idea that everything you could ever want, or need, is available at the touch of a button is a real lifesaver. If you think about it though, it’s also mildly disturbing. Spotify and Amazon aren’t just giving me what I want anymore,

    I’m sat here writing this review on my notebook PC while my smartphone randomly provides new music based on previous choices I’ve made. Meanwhile, my smartwatch feeds me a constant stream of various e-mails and alerts. Technology is just super convenient isn’t it? That idea that everything you could ever want, or need, is available at the touch of a button is a real lifesaver. If you think about it though, it’s also mildly disturbing. Spotify and Amazon aren’t just giving me what I want anymore, they are telling me what I should want. When you look at it that way, it suddenly becomes a bit more invasive doesn’t. My choices are no longer determined by me.

    Zed by Joanna Kavenna, is a wry look at how technology has the ability to help but also frequently hinder when it comes to leading a modern life.

    Guy Matthias is a particularly intriguing character. The CEO of Beetle is such a jumble of conflicting emotions, addictions and neuroses that it’s no surprise he craves order in all things. Matthias worships at the altar of technology. In his eyes, it holds the answer to all things. Using his software, Matthias believes every potential action of a human can be predicted, and if it can be predicted, then rules can be imposed. Flawless models of behaviour can be designed, and uncertainty becomes a thing of the past. It all sounds terribly sensible and within reasonable parameters but, of course, humans are far too chaotic for that sort structure to be implemented easily. Life is gloriously messy, bringing order from chaos is not an easy thing for anyone to do.

    As Matthias seeks out a sleek, easily manageable answer to his various conundrums, we get to follow various people as they attempt to navigate the pitfalls of this new technological utopia. Can a security officer do her job effectively when partnered with autonomous machines that are supposedly incapable of making mistakes, but frequently do? Is the press still free when every newspaper is owned by the company they may want to investigate? Is it possible to live a life outside the confines of the omnipresent world-spanning conglomerate that is Beetle or is bowing to the corporate machine inevitable? It quickly becomes obvious that every facet of existence has a link to technology in one form or another.

    Events spiral further out of control as Matthias becomes more and more desperate to achieve his dreams. He attempts to simplify language replacing multiple words with a single alternative. The subtle nuances of communication may have been removed, but doesn’t that just make everything easier? I’ll give you a quick hint, the answer is a resounding no! Elsewhere, algorithms created at Beetle headquarters, designed by artificial intelligence, are used to offer subtle suggestions and insights into all decisions people make. Before you know it, things are starting to appear far more sinister than they were before. It’s all rather insidious.

    I’ll be the first to admit modern life can sometimes feel unnecessarily complicated. We have to wade through such a colossal morass of irrelevant minutiae every day that we never have the time to concentrate on the important details. We spend our time obsessively seeking the best deal on this or the latest version of that. Mass consumerism is the new religion and information drives the world. With each new technological advancement, it seems we willingly give away our freedoms and blindly accept comfy reassurance in return. Ok, I may be ranting a little here, but we’ve already seen the seeds of Beetle-esque changes on the horizon. Insurance companies are pondering the use of smart wearables to determine the best quotes for policies*. Smart fridges are able to re-order your weekly shop, track your calendar and keep an eye on your health. Zed does a great job of tapping into all these fears and following their threads to a logical conclusion.

    Joanne Kavenna’s latest novel is a pitch-black satire that unpicks the madness of the modern condition. How can technology and order be the answer to all of our woes when humanity is beautifully erratic and unpredictable even on a good day. I don’t dispute that technology can be life changing in many positive ways, I merely urge caution. The narrative in Zed eloquently illustrates this exact point.

    Witty, circular arguments and razor-sharp social commentary delight and inform throughout. This novel highlights, pretty convincingly, that the best way to undermine foolish notions is to eviscerate them in fiction. Humanity is, above all else, nonsensical and Zed quite happily proves that. I always enjoy a book that manages to be both funny and mildly terrifying in the same breath. I can heartily recommend Zed to anyone who has ever pondered where all their data goes when accepting the terms and conditions on a website. I suspect collecting “anonymous” statistics is only the start. Smart, darkly comic and genuinely thoughtful I enjoyed every page.

    *I have Google Fit on my watch. I’d imagine it won’t be long until I will have to submit the information it collects for some reason of another.

  • Rachel Noel

    *Book provided via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

    This book was promoted as a sci-fi dystopian where everyone's lives are dictated by algorithms, with a strong philosophical and dark comedy bent. I'll be honest, I get why it's listed as science fiction, but it's really more of a drama than anything. I will give Kavenna full credit, this is the first time I've read a book about a dystopian society falling apart from the perspective of those running the dystopia. That was a very nice

    *Book provided via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

    This book was promoted as a sci-fi dystopian where everyone's lives are dictated by algorithms, with a strong philosophical and dark comedy bent. I'll be honest, I get why it's listed as science fiction, but it's really more of a drama than anything. I will give Kavenna full credit, this is the first time I've read a book about a dystopian society falling apart from the perspective of those running the dystopia. That was a very nice change of pace and I greatly appreciated that. A lot of the book focuses on the philosophy/ethics of monopolies. Things like people can always choose to not opt into the algorithms. Of course, if they don't, they'll never get into college, will never get employed anywhere and will have to live in squalor, but it's still their choice. The fact that dissenters get drowned out or have some minor criminal activity brought to light is purely coincidence. And, honestly, to me that covers about 80% of the book. It was an okay read, a nice little stretch into the philosophical and, at times, the absurd. 3.5 hoots!

  • Blair

    (3.5, maybe?) It's difficult to rate this. It reminded me most of my experience with Joshua Cohen's

    a book I hated at first, and continued to find frustrating throughout, but ended up loving, and now regard as one of the greatest novels the 21st century has yet produced. (There are also superficial similarities in the books' plots, for example chunks of the story being focused on a powerful tech mogul.) I'm not sure I can quite place

    in the masterpiece category, but it's far

    (3.5, maybe?) It's difficult to rate this. It reminded me most of my experience with Joshua Cohen's

    a book I hated at first, and continued to find frustrating throughout, but ended up loving, and now regard as one of the greatest novels the 21st century has yet produced. (There are also superficial similarities in the books' plots, for example chunks of the story being focused on a powerful tech mogul.) I'm not sure I can quite place

    in the masterpiece category, but it's far more interesting than a middling star rating might suggest.

    Reading between the lines, I think

    must have been through some serious rewrites. When first announced, it focused on some of the same characters, but was set in 1999 and titled

    it's since been significantly pushed back from its original release date of May 2018. Even now, a week before publication, there are noticeable differences between the blurb and the version I read. (For example, two of the characters referenced in the current blurb – the female PM and the hacker named Gogol – are only mentioned a handful of times in the book.) I perhaps ought to add a disclaimer that what I'm reviewing here may not be what appears in print.

    With all that out of the way: the version I read is set in the near(ish?) future. Beetle, an enormous corporation whose closest real-world analogue is probably Amazon, dominates technology, employment and justice. The main characters are its CEO, Guy Matthias; his right-hand man, Douglas Varley; their 'Veeps', virtual personal assistants, who are sometimes embodied and sometimes not; Eloise Jayne, a senior anti-terrorism officer; and David Strachey, a newspaper editor. There's also a dissident who goes by many names, but is most often known as Bel Ami. The society these characters inhabit is founded on the idea that technology can reliably predict human behaviour. The plot – such as it is – deals with what becomes of such a society when humans suddenly start being dangerously unpredictable. This collapse is blamed on a factor known as 'Zed'; the term is a stand-in for 'human decoherence'.

    It took me perhaps 80 pages to feel I'd made any sort of connection with the narrative. I was going to say that

    is not an immediately engaging book, but that's not strictly true – it has entertaining details from the start. (The names of the Veeps never failed to raise a smile.) It's the plot that never quite seems to get going. The whole story feels like a tug-of-war: on one side there's a meandering philosophical/satirical account of a bunch of lost, lonely people, and on the other, the sense that someone's been trying their best to mould it into a plot-driven tech thriller.

    The result is certainly enjoyable, yet somewhat muddled. This is a book which has clear undercurrents of brilliance, more intellect and imagination than whole swathes of current fiction, but is often sluggish, and mildly unsatisfying as a whole.

    Zed

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  • Alan Shaw

    I enjoyed some of this book and some of it I found a slog. The story begins well as a black and bleak comedy then loses its way, suddenly ups a gear and is almost exciting before simply fading away. The premise isn't particularly new - Big Bad Business and Big Bad Government collude in high-tech monitoring of everyone and everything for the usual ends of money power and control. It sometimes reminded me of Alena Graedon's The Word Exchange except that had heart - here the primary characters felt

    I enjoyed some of this book and some of it I found a slog. The story begins well as a black and bleak comedy then loses its way, suddenly ups a gear and is almost exciting before simply fading away. The premise isn't particularly new - Big Bad Business and Big Bad Government collude in high-tech monitoring of everyone and everything for the usual ends of money power and control. It sometimes reminded me of Alena Graedon's The Word Exchange except that had heart - here the primary characters felt for the most part just plot devices. The only one who seemed real and written with some feeling was Guy Matthias, particularly his Damascene moment about his estranged wife and family.

    As I mentioned, it all fizzles out rather unsatisfactorily but in and amongst there is some good writing and I will explore more of Ms Kavenna's work.

  • CJ

    Dammit! Tricked by cover porn. Look at that cover, it is gorgeous!

    It has a very intriguing premise, but was let down by the execution. It reads like an early draft. A few more rounds of revising and editing could elevate this story into a masterpiece. I did read an early copy so hopefully some of the issues I had with it were resolved before release.

    It is a satirical look at determinism vs free will in the digital age and tech giants profiting from the subjection of humanity. In the not too

    Dammit! Tricked by cover porn. Look at that cover, it is gorgeous!

    It has a very intriguing premise, but was let down by the execution. It reads like an early draft. A few more rounds of revising and editing could elevate this story into a masterpiece. I did read an early copy so hopefully some of the issues I had with it were resolved before release.

    It is a satirical look at determinism vs free will in the digital age and tech giants profiting from the subjection of humanity. In the not too distant future, societies are surreptitiously controlled by a monopoly of tech giants whose tech and AI are based on the theory: humans have free will but they are predictable. It is a precursor to an Orwellian society as people still have a choice to opt into the Predictive Lifechain, but if they don't they are manipulated or coerced into it or shunned by society as there is no data to verify they are a trustworthy citizen. Beetle is the largest and most influential of these mega-corps, and its tech is deeply ingrained in society. Guy Matthias, a philanthropist and CEO of Beetle, is an odious vile man who publicly believes the use of his deterministic AI platform to control the population creates a safe and stable utopia. However, privately, it is a tool for him to avoid responsibility and accountability for his and the company's actions, further his political agendas and petty vendettas against anyone who disagrees with him, and mine for successful hookups.

    This one was a struggle to finish. Initially the balance between the world building and plot was off with paragraphs of info-dumps unexpectedly popping up. While the plot improved and was interesting, there are too many ideas crammed in and it becomes a muddled incoherent mess ... and that is before it introduces the Bespoke Beetlespeak language. Often it felt like it was written by a robot with the info-dumps being contrary and contradictory, for example:

    Ended up skim reading the last few chapters. It was like the author didn't know how to wrap up the story after the climax.

    Thank you to Netgalley and the publishers for the ARC.

  • Mary

    It started well, a great concept and very witty. I want to know what the ending is, but I just don't want to read it any more. It seems to be going nowhere slowly.

  • Geoff

    This was a really frustrating book for me to read. I think the theme and issues are important, but there were several aspects of both the style and the plot that made it fall flat.

    In terms of the style, this was a bad mix of scifi and literary fiction. I love both genres, so I was really excited for this and it didn't meet my expectations. It was bad scifi (way too many info dumps that led to an excess of telling an not showing) and I found the style and characters abysmal. At points it seemed

    This was a really frustrating book for me to read. I think the theme and issues are important, but there were several aspects of both the style and the plot that made it fall flat.

    In terms of the style, this was a bad mix of scifi and literary fiction. I love both genres, so I was really excited for this and it didn't meet my expectations. It was bad scifi (way too many info dumps that led to an excess of telling an not showing) and I found the style and characters abysmal. At points it seemed allegorical and dreamy, but she clearly wanted us to care about the characters. And although she clearly wanted us to care about the characters, they were all incredibly shallowly drawn and oddly prone to fall in love with the central trickster figure.

    In terms of the plot, I think the author was going for a modern 1984, where instead of Orwell's political techno-fascistic dystopia, she presented a softer, corporate dystopia, where people are nudged and influenced and governments are captured and tech manipulated to promote corporate goals. Fair enough - that's happening right now, and she did a great job of showing what a horror that society/our society is (although the comparison to China were a little too "hit the reader over the head").

    But the details were maddening.

    She made good points about nudges and libertarian paternalism (who gets to decide which way to nudge people?) but nudges don't nearly have the effect that she portrays them to have, and that reduces the power of her clarion call.

    Second, I can't for the life of me understand why a tech company would want to take over police and justice functions from a government. Why would Google/Facebook want to be responsible for the liability of autonomous robots with guns and police power? What's in it for them to take over criminal justice and put at risk their core businesses?

    Finally, and most annoying, the central conceit of the book was that "Zed" puts a spanner in the works of "Beetle's" lifechain predictive models that are supposed to perfectly predict the future behaviors of all citizens. And the techno gurus and data scientists are all astounded that their models have predictive error - that people sometimes suddenly do random things. Which is preposterous. Measuring and understanding predictive error is core to building a model! I can understand government and non-data corporate officials not understand how models fail, but portraying statisticians and data scientists as flummoxed by a model's error is just silly.

    It's entirely possible I've missed something major with her style, but on the whole, I wanted better.

    *Read an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*

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