Whilst I was reading The Red Men, I was given the difficult task of explaining the plot to a man who, by his own admission, did not read ‘sci-fi stuff’ and was unimpressed that this novel had been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2008. My summary of the background premise appeared to confirm his prejudice: in the near future, a British technology company called Monad has harnessed the powers of an enormous, nebulous artificial intelligence named Cantor, who is able to occupy the bodies of purpose built robots, called Dr. Easys, which act as a sort of hybrid of policemen, social workers and punchbags of the people. Monad also uses Cantor to scan individual human beings, assimilating their personalities, their pasts, their emotions and their actions, and uploads the information into the Monad mainframe to create virtual reality simulations of people – the eponymous red men. At this point, I was interrupted. “The problem with these sci-fi guys,” my companion said, “is that they’ve got good ideas but they can’t write and they’re obsessed with robots.”
He was wrong on both counts. Yes, I will concede, this is a novel about robots and AI. But between the surprising, faintly disorientating lyricism and the enthusiastic intellectual engagement with academic and traditional interpretations of the human mind, an inescapable question arose – is it the ‘sci-fi guys’ alone that are ‘obsessed’? In The Red Men, the artificial simulations are used as a mixture of personal assistants, like iPads with backchat, and guinea pigs for reality; they eventually diverge from their personalities of origin, becoming harder, tougher, faster, crueller, cleverer, quicker – less human. In popular role-playing games such as World of Warcraft, the Sims and Second Life, an individual can create an avatar of themselves corresponding to the idealised vision of that self, shorn of human foibles, in a fully realised and sustained alternate reality. On the all-pervasive platforms of Facebook, Twitter and blogs, people are editing themselves, recreating themselves, reporting on themselves, wholly dissimulating themselves around the internet. Matthew de Abaitua challenges the expanding enactment of modern culture through social media and its devices by taking it to its furthest extreme, and that’s only one of the issues he grapples with in this extraordinarily well-written, intelligent and meticulously researched work.
The novel begins with a fire. A man with the given name Michael Michael has ensconced himself in a Hackney house with a gun; police close in and barricade the suspected terrorist in the flat. A Dr Easy robot is sent in to negotiate with Michael Michael, but snipers have shot him through the tongue and he is no longer able to talk. Nevertheless, Dr Easy, with its Cantor-given ability to scan the bodies and brainwaves of human beings, knows exactly what Michael Michael wants. We are never permitted to find out – Michael Michael has doused himself in petrol and dies in a desperate act of self-immolation. All this is witnessed by Nelson Millar, (mostly) our protagonist, who lives across the street with his wife and young daughter. He was the editor of the counter-cultural Nineties magazine Drug Porn in his twenties, but now works as a marketing strategist, operator and blue sky thinker for Monad, headed by the mysterious, mystical, ascetic Steve Jobs caricature Hermes Spence. It was a younger, more sarcastic Nelson that came up with the name for the red men at their nascent stage:
“[L]et’s keep that thought about self-immolation and reconstruction. It’s like fire. Fire changes through destruction. Now you can’t call them firemen. How about we just take the colour of fire. Not orange. They can’t be Orangemen, that’s taken. Red. Red men. Red is the colour of danger but also the colour of power. Everyone wants more power, don’t they? Red boys and red girls. Like a younger self. What sells better than youth?… We should stick with red men, regardless of whether they are based on a man or a woman. Just forget gender. We are talking about a new species here.”
Nelson is sent out by Monad to the tiny northern town of Maghull to scan and upload all the people and buildings, in order to create an experimental focus group upon which potential government policy can be tested. Nelson is an unwilling collaborator in this unprecedented erosion of the personal – his best friend, a manic poet named Raymond Chase, was given a job at Monad at his recommendation and has since ‘gone dark’ and vanished. Monad has the power to fire Nelson for his role in Raymond’s supposed crime, and could destroy his life and the lives of his family in the ensuing legal process. Nelson faces attacks on all fronts: he does not believe in the morality of what he is doing; his wife is furious and miserable that he is abandoning his family for Maghull; the rest of the Maghull committee are in fierce competition with him; Cantor wants to scan his brain; and, worst of all, Monad and its employees are coming under attack from the neo-Luddite sect of the Great Refusal, which is closely linked with Monad’s single mysterious competitor, the Dyad. Practically nothing is known about the Dyad, except that it might be responsible for growing artificial human organs out of pigs. This will turn out to be even more sinister than it sounds.
The Great Refusal, ‘going dark’ and Raymond Chase are among de Abaitua’s most appealing inventions. To ‘go dark’ is to cut oneself off from technology – without an electronic link, Cantor cannot watch you. Clapton, Hackney and surrounding areas, portrayed as micro-societies with drug, gang and poverty problems that caricature a more privileged area code’s idea of Clapton, are almost entirely ‘dark’. With submerged and insidious humour, the Great Refusal echoes the ethos of today’s eco-conscious, vintage-inspired, allotment-digging cultural revolutionaries. Raymond, permanently teetering on the edge of a complete mental breakdown and beautifully eloquent besides, manages to transcend this, but his love interest Florence presents a faintly ludicrous though well-dressed figure, even going so far as to have spam sandwiches in her packed lunch. The masks worn by active Great Refusalists are gas masks, and Nelson describes an outfit which delicately veers from fashionable inspiration to slightly silly imitation:
Rationing chic was more than just a refusal of the 21st century, it was the uniform of a generation under attack. A woman wearing a blue-pill box hat eyed me suspiciously from behind a scrap of black veil. She was wearing a powder-blue mac with ruched shoulders, a subtle appliqué fleur-de-lis on her right breast. The coat was too big for her.
Aesthetically appealing as the movement is, de Abaitua’s subtle criticisms suggest a counter-movement that has veered too far the other way. This brilliant book tests the reader with questions relevant to our day-to-day lives. Could anyone really go dark in 21st century Britain without incurring entirely unnecessary inconveniences, for themselves and others? How much is ‘big business’ to blame for damaging over-consumption of material goods, and how much the gullibility and greed of the consumer themselves? And above all – do you like and trust yourself enough to have faith in a red man made from you?