Cover of 'Little Eyes' by Samanta Schweblin

Tech fiction reviews: ‘QualityLand’ and ‘Little Eyes’

Image credit: OneWorld

In case real life isn’t making you anxious enough, two new novels set in worlds similar to our own explore the dark paths down which technology can take us.

It feels bizarre to be reviewing two dystopian novels at the time when life itself increasingly resembles a protracted, eerie and, yes, rather scary dystopia, the literary equivalent of which – the world in the throes of a deadly pandemic – has been exploited by writers for donkeys’ years.

For all its merits and drawbacks, ‘QualityLand’ (Orion, £19.99, ISBN 9781409191179) by the Berlin-based writer Marc-Uwe Kling is a terrific read, structured to look and to sound like a fictionalised techno dossier from the not-so-distant future – the world’s first ‘2.0 country’, where every aspect of life has been optimised by androids and algorithms.

In this QualityLand, populated by QualityPeople, shopping items arrive before you even order them and everyone is ranked and named for their social level (from one to a hundred) and their role in the society – the protagonist Peter Jobless, his ex-girlfriend Mildred Secretary, Tony Party-Leader, Sandra Admin and even Oliver House-Husband.

The plot revolves around Peter’s futile attempts to get a refund from TheShop, the country’s main and only online retailer (slogan: ‘We know what you want’), which has sent Peter a useless pink sex toy that he didn’t order. It’s a common occurrence in Kling’s QualityLand, where it is not uncommon for a shopper to receive a combat robot instead of a vacuum cleaner, say.

Events unravel against the background of presidential elections in QualityLand, with John of Us (who is actually an android) running against a celebrity chef Conrad Cook, whose motto is “Let’s bring quality back to QualityLand” (does that remind you of someone?).

To be honest, at times I was finding it hard to follow the plot and to tell one character from another, due to the proliferation of invariably witty and precise, yet often superfluous, literary gimmicks. Between chapters, for example, the book is peppered generously (I would say over-generously) and rather disruptively with adverts, news reports, spoof internet comments and the like.

Reading ‘QualityLand’ and enjoying the author’s irrepressible wit, I couldn’t help thinking that it reminded me a little of Evgeny Zamyatin’s classic dystopian novel ‘We’, first published in Russia in 1924. The latter is set in a country called The One State, where citizens have numbers instead of names and hidden ‘membranes’ in their ears that record all conversations – not dissimilar to the somewhat more sophisticated (no wonder – the technological imagination of writers must have evolved considerably in the course of nearly a hundred years) ‘audio assistants’ that nestle in people’s ears in ‘QualityLand’.

But if Zamyatin in his novel tried to warn of the dangers of technological Utopia whereby the state merges with machines to form a totalitarian techno-dictatorship – a very serious and largely prophetic message - Kling’s goal seems to be pure entertainment. Nevertheless, it’s a mission that it has to be said he accomplishes brilliantly.

Unlike ‘QualityLand’, Samanta Schweblin’s ‘Little Eyes’ (OneWorld, £14.99, ISBN 9781786077929) is more of a fantasy novel than a dystopia, set not in the future but in a fairly timeless global reality – alluring and unsettling in equal measure.

The action fluctuates with ease between Croatia and Sierra Leone, Tel Aviv and Vancouver, with every chapter marked with the presence of ‘Kentukis’ – fluffy and cuddly animal toys that combine a mobile phone, a camera and a small robot – all in one – and are fitted with hidden cameras designed to capture and disseminate all over the planet the most intimate moments of people’s private lives.

Owners can establish a connection with other similar devices all over the world by buying a ‘Kentuki card’ capable of taking them to strangers’ bathrooms, bedrooms and private quarters. Each chapter is a novella in its own right featuring an international set of characters of different ages and nationalities, all united by their passion for the seemingly innocent voyeurism, which, as it transpires, can carry very sinister implications and lead to abuse, humiliation and even death.

I could see in ‘Little Eyes’ a subtle and scathing parody of modern communications technology and social media, with everyone desperate to be ‘interconnected’ with everyone else. The book, longlisted for the 2020 Booker International Prize (for which Schweblin has already been shortlisted twice before), has been characterised by some reviewers as reminiscent of the TV series ‘Black Mirror’. I found that Schweblin’s colourful and near-hypnotic prose echoed the works of her fellow Argentinian, the internationally acclaimed novelist and essayist Julio Cortazar. It also brought to mind a remarkable work of reportage, ‘The Voyeur’s Motel’ by Gay Talese, which was published in The New Yorker in 2016. That told the story of a real-life American motel owner who spends his life shamelessly and matter-of-factly spying on his guests with the help of simple optical devices and recording his perverse observations without a shadow of doubt or remorse.

Just like ‘The Voyeur’s Motel’, ‘Little Eyes’ is a rare, yet powerful, indictment of a society that tolerates and even encourages violations of one of our most precious moral commodities – privacy, an essential part of what we call human dignity.

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