From the winner of the Orange Award for New Writing comes a blistering, satirical novel about life under a global media and tech corporation that knows exactly what we think, what we want, and what we do--before we do.
One corporation has made a perfect world based on a perfect algorithm... now what to do with all these messy people?
Lionel Bigman is dead. Murdered by a robot. Guy Matthias, the philandering founder and CEO of the mega-corporation Beetle, insists it was human error. But was it? Either the predictive algorithms of Beetle's supposedly omniscient 'lifechain' don't work, or, they've been hacked. Both scenarios are impossible to imagine and signal the end of Beetle's technotopia and life as we know it.
Dazzlingly original and darkly comic, Zed asks profound questions about who we are, what we owe to one another, and what makes us human. It describes our moment--the ugliness and the beauty--perfectly. Kavenna is a prophet who has seen deeply into the present--and thrown back her head and laughed.
A darkly ironic novel of ideas, a dystopia, and an absurdist thriller, from the award-winning novelist.
Joanna Kavenna's Zed is a dark, dazzling journey through possible near-futures...a novel of ideas with heart and soul.Tom Chatfield
Advance praise for Joanna Kavenna:
Kavenna explores the complex nature of reality and perception with vast imaginative energy and a generous spirit.A. L. Kennedy
Joanna Kavenna is a true literary insurgent: bravely unconventional and ruthless in her quest to demonstrate the possibility of deep, distinctive experience.Miriam Toews
Kavenna scales her mountain ... with the determination of a writer who is really living and, what's more, living a relevant life. To surrender yourself to the revelations of that life and then to come back with the assertions of prose: that is the new heroism of the woman writer, and Kavenna is in the vanguard of it.Rachel Cusk
Zed is a marvel. Not only does it map the chilling implications of creeping technological and corporate influence, it reveals to us the deeply necessary phenomena with which that influence is in conflict. The result is both a painfully convincing dystopia and a moving argument for unpredictability - even chaos - as its own kind of freedom.Sam Byers, author of PERFIDIOUS ALBION
Joanna Kavenna's Zed is a dark, dazzling journey through possible near-futures...a novel of ideas with heart and soul.Tom Chatfield
Zed is brilliant dystopian insanity on a grand scale, describing a world of corporate pretenders, broken software, and algorithms that never quite work as well as they're supposed to. Hilarious, incisive, and painfully relevant.Max Barry
Joanna Kavenna is a brilliantly unpredictable novelist: whatever you think she might do next, she doesn’t. After novels dealing with depression (Inglorious), with maternity (The Birth of Love), with quantum physics (A Field Guide to Reality), she turns her formidable talents to the most pressing topic of these days: our digitally enmeshed lives. In terms of its stylistic innovations, Zed is a tour de force […] a novel that takes our strange, hall-of-mirrors times very seriously indeed. It is a work of delirious genius.Stuart Kelly, Guardian
Joanna Kavenna’s latest mindbender features the CEO of a multinational tech company whose sway has long outstripped that of mere governments...It's chillingly believable, but Zed is also extremely funny, especially when the hitherto compliant Veeps begin to malfunction…Kavenna remains one of the most brilliant and disconcerting British writers working today.Suzi Feay, Spectator
If Joanna Kavenna’s previous novel, A Field Guide to Reality, took us down a dreamy, Carrollian rabbit hole, then Zed, her latest, is more post-Orwellian nightmare…It’s bizarre to find all this so funny, not least because it feels alarmingly close to our reality. Zed picks apart, with piercing clarity, how little people think about offering up their data, and how blithe we may be about who gathers it at the other end…One of the cleverest books you’ll read this year.Sophie Ratcliffe, Telegraph
Kavenna's prose is exhilarating. Reality is incoherent. Dreams, VR and lived experience all blur. Identities multiply, while true authenticity seems impossible to quantify.New Scientist
A brainy, bustling novel, Zed is hugely enjoyable…What’s great about it is that Kavenna uses her scenario not only for horror, but laughter, too, as a send-up of corporate hubris and government heedlessness.Anthony Cummins, The Observer
A witty exploration of freedom and oppression . . . fun and erudite . . . For readers who like to nod at clever references, the imaginative Zed will be a delight, and it will no doubt gain many admirers.Sunday Times
A razor-sharp satire about life under the ubiquitous eye of a global tech corporation, Joanna Kavenna has hit a home run with ZEDTatler
Kavenna is a Very Intelligent Author. Her imagined world is convincing and darkly humorous…Kavenna's satire has bite and often rings uncomfortably true.Miranda France, Literary Review
Snort-inducingly funny.Daily Mail
Absorbing and timely…Hilarious. Zed plunges into potential extremes, and reminds us that in all our faults, we cannot be reduced to a series of 1s and 0s. At least, not yet.Financial Times
This razor-keen examination of an algorithmically controlled world feels perilously close to contemporary life.Metro
I have read several of [Kavenna’s] novels and become an admirer of her invariably ironic, paradoxical and tongue-in-cheek writing style. Her latest novel is the best so far. Zed, which can be described as an ironic sci-fi dystopia, is set in a society run entirely by algorithms, developed and owned by a global media conglomerate called Beetle…Yet life itself gets in the way of that dystopian scenario, and Guy Matthias, the CEO of Beetle itself and the novel’s protagonist, has to face the sheer unpredictability of his company’s operations and of his own – rather disorderly – daily existence…As per the novel’s concluding paragraph, almost Buddhist in its beautiful equivocation: “She moved through beauty and uncertainty, chaos and love. This was everything and nothing, at the same time!”...A poignant satire of the digital age”Vitali Vitaliev, ‘Best Summer Reads’ Engineering and Technology
Kavenna has a deft, arch tone when she sketches a society dominated by mass data surveillance and tame academics. Her prose is wry and perceptive . . . Zed takes aim at the smooth, farcical terror of functional and ubiquitous surveillance.The Oldie
Zed intelligently depicts the dangers posed by the high-tech companies increasingly infiltrating our lives and simultaneously revels in the resistance that comes from being human…Zed is wickedly funny and the novel’s humour is essential to its celebration of uncertainty, chaos and love. Guy Matthias is a delirious parody of male angst seeking refuge in self-aggrandisement and extra-marital sex. Addicted to longevity treatments, he has regular infusions of young people’s blood and wears a cryogenic amulet round his neck. His wife wants a divorce, citing his “rabid, drooling fear of death”…Kavenna’s wickedly delicious humour is the light at the end of the tunnel – one that’s not from an approaching train.Sean Sheehan, Business Post
Zed sweats with wit and vitality, and reads like the work of a writer relishing her task. It also transcends its moment.TLS
In this tangled, riveting parable of the modern surveillance state, Kavenna leads readers through an eerie near-future England dominated by the Beetle corporation, whose increasingly invasive technology monitors everything: people’s health, transportation, and even the contents of one’s refrigerator…Kavenna delivers this gripping narrative with wit and dark humor, leaving readers both entertained and a little paranoid.Starred review, Publishers’ Weekly
Kavenna deserves high praise for originality as well as the energy and humour of her writing. In 367 pages she manages to paint a picture of a world terrifyingly similar to our own and provides a witty and horrifyingly relevant account of just how much technology can control the world if we let it . . . Kavenna’s book is full of dark humour and provides refreshingly frank social commentary with a distinctly Orwellian flavour. Clever, funny and incredibly readable, Zed is a book that might make you think twice before agreeing to “share my location” on the next app you download.The Scotsman
In an alarmingly plausible near future, tech giant Beetle has risen to global prominence in the fields of transportation, communication, health, security, media, and everything else…Kavenna…is a diligent scholar of her form, melding a massively complex plot à la Thomas Pynchon and the wicked social satire of Evelyn Waugh with a healthy dose of Gogol’s absurdist dysphoria thrown in for good measure. Complex, funny, prescient, difficult: Kavenna's novel tackles nothing less than everything as it blurs the lines between real and virtual.Starred review, Kirkus
The notion of free will is fundamental to major religious systems and philosophies, as well as to the predictive lifechain. The predictive lifechain, indeed, operated on the assumption that free will was inevitable, but that even free humans may exert their free will in predictable ways. The more data you – meaning it – can amass, the more accurate these predictions will be. Thus, people can be as free as anything, and yet societies can be orderly as well. This only worked if people were free in predictable ways, and failed to work if they became free in ways that were not predicted by the lifechain. It was a subtle balance.
As the predictive lifechain began to suffer from anomalies, so the thoughts of Beetle’s key operators and Very Intelligent Personal Assistants turned once more to this ancient philosophical question of free will. When was free will a good thing, and when was it an irritant? How might people be free in a way that was generally advantageous to society, rather in a way that threatened the equilibrium? What did it mean, in a free society, to have free people making free decisions? Should free people occasionally be enticed towards decisions that might make them ultimately more free than the original decisions they might have taken, had they taken their decisions freely?
And, if decisions that were made less freely made people more free in the end, was free will actually such a good thing after all? Free will, by the way, is defined by Wiki-Beetle as:
The power to act without any constraints imposed by other mortals or by deities or supernatural forces; the power to determine one’s own actions.
The Wiki-Beetle entry continues thus:
Free will is a fundamental question within any theological system and, by association, any society in which such beliefs are still influential in faith practices or philosophical arguments. Any self-respecting omnipotent deity could surely stop humans from committing atrocities, murders, genocides and so forth, if He/ She/ It so desired. Therefore, no one would be damned and be consigned to eternal punishment. However, the free will argument runs, most omnipotent deities have clearly granted free will to their creations and this is why the history of humanity has been such a terrifying bloodbath.
Opposing this tradition is the philosophical notion of determinism. Again we might derive our notion of this term from the ever-helpful Wiki-Beetle:
A belief in a deterministic universe means a belief that every event is caused by something other than individual will. Individuals, therefore, are not at all free. Determinism can also exist within both religious and secular systems of thought. The individual might be predetermined by such factors as biology, or by fundamental physical laws.
Some of Beetle’s detractors regarded the lifechain as a form of determinism, because – for example – people might be promoted, or fired, or even convicted under the Sus-Law on the grounds of predictive algorithms. People had divorced each other on the basis of lifechains. There were arguments, as well, that it might be a good idea to consider advisory sterilisation of certain people – the insane, malefactors, abusers – on the basis of their lifechain predictions, though such proposals were still at the research stage. There was also a notion, intrinsic to the lifechain, that if someone had done something one day, they would do it the next and the day after and, basically, forever. This was not necessarily automatic, said the detractors. The lifechain was also very sensitive to anomalies, or rather moments when people failed to do precisely the same as they had done before, and even minor anomalies could cause major instabilities in lifechain predictions. This had always been a problem, but Beetle had been confident it could be fixed. It hadn’t been fixed. Indeed, if anything, it had become even more of a problem.
We might request further information from Wiki-Beetle but alas it is now a very expensive online resource. Once Guy Matthias acquired all the data he needed about user preferences, user lives, user searches, user return searches, user readings of user searches, and anything else to do with the life and times of his users, he made the decision to charge twenty BeetleBits for each search or four hundred BeetleBits for a monthly subscription. This is considerably more money than most people earn, even those fortunate people who are paid in BeetleBits.
At one level everyone in this society was extremely fortunate. They were constantly told that they were fortunate and we might assume this was correct. They were members of an enlightened liberal democracy. They had the right to work, and the right to choose how they worked. True, 90% of the Western web was directly operated by or affiliated to Beetle, the BeetleBit was the dominant cryptocurrency, and if you had not exchanged your pounds or other less successful cryptocurrencies into BeetleBits quite some time ago then you couldn’t pay for Beetle services, including the Mercury fleet – which accounted for 98% of driverless cars (and, therefore, 91% of cars of any sort) in London and elsewhere. It was also true that if you didn’t work for Beetle then you could not be paid in BeetleBits, and if you had not converted your other currencies a long time ago then you could scarcely afford any of the services required for basic functioning in society. However, it was fortunate, also, that Beetle was the major employer of humans in the UK, the US and Europe, and therefore it was far more statistically probable that you would secure a job at Beetle than anywhere else.
It was statistically probable, but not always possible, of course, because Beetle wanted to employ the best people or entities available. This was pure meritocracy, of course: society was equal and fair, and each individual person or entity had the right to work at Beetle, if they merited the job. Of course, universities now requested their fees to be paid in BeetleBits, because the astonishing success of this cryptocurrency had made it financially untenable for universities to operate in any other currency. The universities had no real choice in the matter, even though society was, as a whole, entirely free. If aspirant students could not pay in BeetleBits and could not afford a university degree then they could still find a job with Beetle – there were many, many jobs at many, many levels of the Beetle community, and Guy Matthias wanted everyone to have the opportunity to work for Beetle, at some level; a lower level than the graduate level but still a level, if this was the level they wanted – freely – to choose.
Buy Zed from Amazon.co.uk.
Buy Zed (US Edition) from Penguin Random House.
©2021 Joanna Kavenna