I’m an Irish writer whose new novel is set in the digital, hi-tech future. Which makes it … unusual. If traditional Irish literature was a car, it would have a wide selection of reverse gears, 30 or 40 rear-view mirrors and no headlights. I admire much of Ireland’s brilliant, backward-looking, past-obsessed canon. But other literary traditions use the future: Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Sirens of Titan, A Clockwork Orange, Oryx and Crake, Accelerando, The Power … Irish literature has only recently begun to do this, in books such as Mike McCormack’s Notes from a Coma, Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, and Sarah Davis-Goff’s forthcoming Last Ones Left Alive. Maybe Ireland needed to escape its own stifling past first, referendum by painful referendum.
And so, in 2012, possessed perhaps by the zeitgeist, I began writing Connect. In it, biologist Naomi Chiang, disturbed by the implications of her research, refuses to publish. Her home-schooled, troubled son, Colt, hides from the world inside a virtual reality headset. But Colt secretly sends his mother’s work out into the world; the military, and Colt’s father, come hunting them; and Naomi and Colt must finally engage with their digitised, militarised, technological times.
Connect is essentially a novel of ideas, hidden inside a family drama, and disguised as a techno-thriller. To write it, over what turned out to be seven years of accelerating global change, I needed to understand where the modern technological world came from and where it might be headed. James Joyce, bless him, wasn’t going to help me there.
Here are 10 of the books that did help me: they might also help you understand, and survive, our complicated, stressful, digital age.
1. Marshall McLuhan Unbound by Marshall McLuhan (2005)
The visionary Canadian media analyst predicted the internet, and coined the phrase the Global Village, in the early 1960s. His dense, complex, intriguing books explore how changes in technology change us. This book presents his most important essays as 20 slim pamphlets in a handsome, profoundly physical, defiantly non-digital slipcase.
2. Ubik by Philip K Dick (1969)
Pure pulp SF pleasure; a deep book disguised as a dumb one. Dick shows us, not a dystopia, but a believably shabby, amusingly human future. The everyman hero, Joe Chip, wakes up and argues with his robot toaster, which refuses to toast until he sticks a coin in the slot. Joe can’t do this, because he’s broke. He then has a stand-up row with his robot front door, which won’t open, because he owes it money too … Technology changes: being human, and broke, doesn’t.
Warning: Dick wrote Ubik at speed, on speed. But embedded in the pulpy prose are diamonds of imagery that will stay with you for ever.
3. The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil (2005)
This book is what Silicon Valley has instead of a bible. It’s a visionary work that predicts a technological transformation of the world in our lifetime. Kurzweil argues that computer intelligence will soon outperform human thought. We will then encode our minds, upload them, and become one with our technology, achieving the Singularity. At which point, the curve of technological progress starts to go straight up. Ultimately – omnipotent, no longer mortal, no longer flesh – we transform all the matter in the universe into consciousness; into us.
4. To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell (2017)
This response to Kurzweil won this year’s Wellcome prize. It’s a short, punchy tour of transhumanism: the attempt to meld our minds with machines, to transcend biology and escape death. He meets some of the main players, and many on the fringes, and listens to them, quizzically. It is a deliberately, defiantly human book, operating in that very modern zone between sarcasm and irony, where humans thrive and computers crash.
5. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2011)
This intricately structured, incredibly clever novel moves from the 60s right through to a future maybe 15 years from now. It steps so lightly into that future you hardly notice the transition. It has sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, solar farms, social media scams and a stunningly moving chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation. It’s a masterpiece. Life will be like this.
6. What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (2010)
Kelly argues that we scruffy biological humans are no longer driving technological progress. Instead, the technium, “the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us”, is now driving its own progress, faster and faster, and we are just caught up in its slipstream. As we accelerate down the technological waterslide, there is no stopping now … Kelly’s vision of the future is scary, but it’s fun, and there is still a place for us in it.
7. The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore (1999)
Blackmore expands powerfully and convincingly on Richard Dawkins’s original concept of the meme. She makes a forceful case that technology, religion, fashion, art and even our personalities are made of memes – ideas that replicate, mutate and thus evolve over time. We are their replicators (if you buy my novel, you’ve replicated its memes); but memes drive our behaviour just as we drive theirs. It’s a fascinating book that will flip your world upside down.
8. Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)
In the early 1980s, Gibson watched kids leaning into the screens as they played arcade games. They wanted to be inside the machines, he realised, and they preferred the games to reality. In this novel, Gibson invented the term cyberspace; sparked the cyberpunk movement (to his chagrin); and vividly imagined the jittery, multi-screened, anxious, technological reality that his book would help call into being.
9. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier (2010)
Lanier, an intense, brilliant, dreadlocked artist, musician and computer scientist, helped to develop virtual reality. His influential essay Digital Maoism described early the downsides of online collective action. And he is deeply aware that design choices made by (mainly white, young, male) software engineers can shape human behaviour globally. He argues, urgently, that we need to question those choices, now, because once they are locked in, all of humanity must move along those tracks, and we may not like where they take us. Events since 2010 have proved him right. His manifesto is a passionate argument in favour of the individual voice, the individual gesture.
10. All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks (2000)
Not, perhaps, an immediately obvious influence on a near-future techno-thriller in which military drones chase a woman and her son through Las Vegas. But hooks’s magnificent exploration and celebration of love, first published 18 years ago, will be far more useful to us, in our alienated digital future, than the 10,000 books of technobabble published this year. All About Love is an intensely practical roadmap, from where we are now to where we could be. When Naomi and Colt find themselves on the run through a militarised American wilderness of spirit, when GPS fails them, bell hooks is their secret guide.