ZED Review: Ambitiously Thought-Out but Sluggishly Executed

Review Copy Courtesy of Doubleday Books and NetGalley

“To err is human. Human error is perfectly normal, and, of course, human. All systems that deploy humans—prone as they are to error—must incorporate and compensate for this tendency of humans to make errors.”

-Joanna Kavenna

Image Courtesy of Random House Publishing

With many science fiction novels illustrating the path that society is surely heading towards, and with many of the predicted futures of those novels finally coming into fruition, there has been a strong abundance of such media, located across most of the artistic mediums. The new science-fiction novel Zed from Joanna Kavenna describes the many negative aspects of our current society and expands in satirical directions with its own possible predictions of what may occur in our future. Told through the conflicts surrounding a large company, Beetle, Zed explores the aspects of our growing advancements in technology and how much overall growth as a society has become something beyond our control, melding ambitious concepts that fit better within thick theory textbooks than a science-fiction novel. Indeed, Zed often collapses under its pretentious weight, giving in to what is one of the most outlandishly melodramatic books to be written in recent memory. Still, Kavenna’s book surely impresses and even wows at its best moments, but these moments simply come too far in between hundreds of pages of what is a sluggish, dull mess.

Zed begins with the description of Beetle, a company not unlike the ones we have in our society, but something bigger like a combination of our current largest companies such as Apple, Samsung, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. Guy Matthias, creator and founder of Beetle is viewed as the man who created a perfect utopia, managed almost solely by Beetle. Matthias developed revolutionary technology that has revolutionized the landscape for crime investigation and prevention. Beetle has created the technology to predict what will happen in an individual’s future even going as far as to arrest someone before they can commit a crime. This technology, titled “lifechains,” has undoubtedly improved the quality of life in this dystopian society, buttering day-to-day activities with comfort and content.

Image Courtesy of Amazon UK

However, when a man kills his wife and two children, throwing off the balance and order of Beetle, ripples are sent within Beetle in addition to Matthias’s marital issues. The crime, not predicted or foreseen by lifechains, is depicted as being Zed, “the category term for instability, for elements that disrupt the lifechain.” Following this, the death of another man, Lionel Bigman, is also classified as being a Zed event which is the first in a chain reaction of various deaths, all of which are suicides. The growing number of Zed events triggers the slow acknowledgment of the reality of what happens when someone tries to create a perfect utopia due to the unpredictable nature of humans.

Personally, the overall narrative of Zed was simply far too choppy to be easily digestible by the average reader. Lacking both the intrinsic intrigue and curiosity that has ushered the genre in through so many decades, Kavenna fails to engross the reader in what is on paper a genuinely compelling plot though not too original. For a piece that is clearly intentioned to poking fun at the potential lifestyles and extravagances of tomorrow, Zed is awkwardly shy, holding its best ideas an inch away from its chest as if it needs to hide these moments. There’s an underlying potential here, but it is smothered by wordy prose and weak development all around. And yet, I still found myself propelled through Zed’s meaty length in just a matter of hours. Despite its gaps in storytelling, something was enticing about Kavenna’s magnificent conception of the consequences that our technological innovation may arise. The novel does a decent job of describing and exploring themes that should be recognized and understood by the people of this generation as with such development worldwide, this could be our future. Though I didn’t quite fully grasp the key points that Kavenna wanted to convey, her overall message and purpose, to describe the nature of humans and the advancements in technology, were more than effective, even offering a fresh perspective for myself on how time is changing our daily livelihood for the better or worse.

Our dependence on technology and how much it has become integrated into our daily lives is and should be frightening. The largest corporations of today are those that provide technologies and services that ensure a continuous sense of comfort and security, and Zed makes do work in instilling that fact in every single one of its readers. Serving as a symbolic warning for the theorists and philosophers that will surely intake the book with the greatest enthusiasm, author Joanna Kavenna dives into themes and topics that the rest of the genre has barely scratched the surface of; I just wish it had fully embraced its identity as just that.

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.

ZED Releases on January 14th, 2020.