Book Review: Infoquake by David Louis Edelman

This week, AA takes a look at Infoquake, the highly praised debut novel by David Louis Edelman, and asks whether it lives up to its recent acclaim.

(Full disclosure: David Louis Edelman has been a guest columnist at Futurismic.)

For a debut novel, David Louis Edelman’s Infoquake has garnered more than the usual amount of praise and plaudits. Heralded as a strong new voice dealing with hitherto under-explored ideas in science fiction, the book has a lot to live up to; it is a considerable relief to find that it actually does. So, what is it about Infoquake that’s got everyone so excited?

In a nutshell, its novelty lies in its area of focus – the world of business. Modern sf has frequently populated its worlds with massively powerful and influential corporations, but rarely has it used them as anything more than nebulous forces acting on the characters. Edelman turns tradition on its head by looking inside at the cut-throat machinations of viciously competitive technology start-ups.

The central character is called Natch. A preternaturally bright child and the orphan of an important historical figure, he is raised in an educational ‘hive’ where his treatment at the hands of those less intelligent than him forges him into a ruthless and driven man, determined to come out on the top of the pile by any means necessary. He learns that his intellect is his most powerful weapon, and that people serve little purpose in his mission other than as tools to get a job done. Independent to a fault, and financially crippled by some bad decisions, he enters the sphere of commerce as a relative nobody, stigmatised by an incident from his education, and possessing nothing but his wits and incredible programming skills to get him ahead.

As you might imagine, Natch isn’t exactly a likeable character – he has more than a slight whiff of the antihero about him. His formative years go some way to explaining why he is the way he is, but they don’t entirely justify his cold-blooded lust for success. Many readers and reviewers with past experience in dot-com companies have remarked on how real a character-type he represents. He exhibits that irresistible magnetism that makes certain people so successful in real life situations – his indentured employees despair of him, even loathe him at times, but they always end up giving in to his commands. However, he is a very compelling centrepiece – like him or loathe him, the reader is engaged by his single-minded pursuit of his goals, and curious to find out how he will manage to make it through the trials and tribulations that are strewn in his path by his enemies, and sometimes by his own pig-headedness.

The world in which Natch seeks to be top dog is one in which geography has become almost entirely irrelevant, thanks to the ubiquity of multispace. This is a vast metaverse of virtual realities, connected to the real world with varying degrees of penetration. The barriers between the two are highly permeable; as such, the networks and the businesses that form them become the landscape of the book wherein the political and financial conflicts are fought out, with data, cash and raw influence as the weapons of choice. Infoquake might be best viewed as an examination or extrapolation of the world we live in right now, rather than as an attempted prediction of how things will be at some point in our future. As our world becomes increasingly wired and networked, old notions of geography are becoming increasingly irrelevant. As hinted at by authors before Edelman (Gibson, Sterling and Stephenson, for example), the concept of nation-states is being replaced by political and ideological loyalties, and the sovereignty of profit.

Within that framework, Infoquake might come across as a dystopian work, a polemic against the blinkered headlong charge of corporate capitalism. But despite the serious nature of the themes being discussed, Edelman has avoided this pitfall by employing a writing style with a light touch that lets the characters shine through, and relegates the world they live in to being the backdrop. The result achieves the tone of an enjoyable satire with some genuine moments of laugh-out-loud humour, and minus the heavy-handed moralising that can spoil such stories.

Infoquake isn’t perfect, unfortunately. The pacing is a little erratic, especially near the beginning, and this isn’t aided by the chronological leap backwards to fill the reader in on Natch’s youth in one large chunk – these revelations might have been more digestable in small portions, as well as providing an extra layer of intrigue and revelation. Nevertheless, these are fairly minor complaints to make against a freshman novel, and it is to Edelman’s credit that he hasn’t produced the sort of idea-laden but clinical storytelling that first-time novelists with a background in journalism often turn out. For those who find themselves wanting more background detail, he has provided extensive appendices that fill in the history and scenery surrounding the core narrative, and from these it is plain that a great deal of thought has gone into his creation. It seems likely that the wrinkles in the structure of the writing will iron out as the trilogy progresses, now that the foundations are laid.

The hyperbole surrounding this novel seems justified – drawing on cyberpunk and singularitarian themes, it boldly places a banner for what is arguably a new sub-genre of science fiction. It may not be to everyone’s taste – fans of epic space opera or futuristic military thrillers might well find themselves uninspired by the lack of ‘sense of wonder’ and involved combat and battle scenes, and the nuts and bolts of the technologies at work (of which there are plenty) are rarely mentioned more than briefly and in passing. But in the light of recent debate over the comparative merits of ‘serious’ science fiction and the sort written with pure entertainment in mind, Infoquake sits squarely in the shifting and disputed borderland between these two poles of purpose. As an engaging fictional mirror of the modern world, written from an angle rarely used, this novel definitely marks Edelman as a writer to keep an eye on.

(David Louis Edelman’s website has sample chapters from Infoquake along with all the appendices and biographical information on the author. He also blogs.)