This week Facebook announced its own digital currency. Libra, as it is called, will have a ready user base of over 2 billion people, i.e., existing Facebook users, and the company hopes that it will, in the not-so-distant future, become the medium of exchange of the people, replacing existing national currencies.
Some found this to be a highly original idea, but for people in the tech world, and for many science fiction readers, it was to be expected, and all that remains is to see how this idea will play out in the real world in the context of various governmental regulations on cryptocurrency worldwide. Instead, many of us wondered, What next? Will Facebook declare itself a sovereign nation? It’s not as impossible as it seems.
In the pages of Eliot Peper’s near-future techno-thriller trilogy, that’s exactly what the behemoth corporation Commonwealth does — declare itself a sovereign state, in a time when national currencies have lost their value and nation-states exist only notionally in a borderless world. And the power of Commonwealth comes from its control of its biggest product, the Feed. Think of it as an aggregation of all the existing social media and big tech companies and streams, and then some, multiplied manifold. The Feed powers every single digital activity of every single person alive, acting as the lifeline of the society in the climate-changed, near-future world that Peper posits. Through the Feed flows every single financial transaction made, every piece of communication; it powers the self-driving cars yet is personal enough for every person to have their own feed which answers their every question, helps them navigate through their lives and, going beyond online, even mediates every real-life experience.
Peper introduced Commonwealth and the chief protagonists in the first book of the Analog series, Bandwidth, at the heart of which is how the Commonwealth could use its power to influence the geopolitics of climate change, for the better. If Bandwidth was about the carbon tax that Commonwealth imposes which leads to the demise of many a fossil fuel empire, Borderless, the second book in the series, sees Commonwealth declare itself sovereign. Once the Feed has subverted nation-states and rendered borders meaningless, it’s time to explore what Commonwealth needs to do to reinvent itself — and how it can do that — to ensure a better future, one in which inequality is a thing of the past, for instance. And this is what Breach, the conclusion to the Analog trilogy, concerns itself with.
For a world that boasts of digital ubiquity and the all-pervasive presence of the Feed, Breach begins in an illegal fight club, in the Philippines, where the Feed is cut off, unavailable. One of the participants in the blood sport that this club is famous for is a hacker — who in the past had the power to manipulate the Feed (and did) and is currently in hiding, living off-the-grid and far removed from all the people and friends she once knew in atonement for a sin she feels having committed.
Commonwealth, meanwhile — after declaring itself sovereign — has grown in power and stature and nothing is beyond it, not even eradicating inequality and poverty. But the people who stand to lose the most, the 1%, won’t take this new proposal of taxing the rich lying down. A cabal made up of ultra-wealthy billionaires seeks to make its move, one that will not just stave off the threat that Commonwealth holds for their wealth but also strike a blow at its credibility and neutrality. It is into this plot that Emily Kim, the hacker-turned-MMA-fighter stumbles upon and now she must choose to come out of hiding if the future is not to be held hostage by a bunch of billionaires.
From them on, it’s a fast-paced narrative where the action shifts from leisure havens to Commonwealth’s boardrooms to the premises of The Island, a home for the prodigious, as each party makes its moves and counter-moves. Even the board of Commonwealth is a house divided, with one faction wanting to do the right thing and another hoping to fend off any measures that would antagonise the rich and powerful. Adding to the urgency of the matter is the succession battle, as the founder of Commonwealth is dying and the future of the Feed — and what it will be and can do — hangs in the balance.
While it is the third book in the series, Breach can be read independently with all the background required for a reader to get the context contained within its pages. That said, reading Bandwidth, the first Analog novel, would help as it is in Bandwidth that most of the characters of Breach make their first appearance, including the chief protagonist as well as the novel’s antagonist.
As much an insightful commentary on the state of the world today, of the future of the Internet, and how technology and institutions can be better, Breach, like its predecessors, is also a fast-paced thriller, packed with intrigue and action. The speculative near-future that it posits is neither hopeful nor horrifying, just as much as the Feed is neither good not bad, but merely a tool — and Peper drives home the point of a corporation such as Commonwealth having an enlightened leadership, for it is they who choose what use the tool is put to, and upon which the future depends, and whether it will turn out to be horrifying or hopeful. While Breach — as much as Bandwidth and Borderless — explores many possibilities, offers many options and throws up not a few questions — on the role of the Feed in our lives, on the influence of algorithms and the power of large corporations — it doesn’t provide any easy answers. That is something the readers will find themselves mulling over not just while reading Breach, but also after being done with the book.
The one thing about near-future science fiction novels that are spot on with their speculation is that the fiction contained within their pages often tends to get overtaken by fact. This isn’t to say that it renders the books outdated, but only highlights the immediacy in reading them, because if fiction is turning into fact, then we must turn to fiction like the Analog novels to see what the future could look like, what it could hold in store for us and what we could do to ensure it’s a good one. Happy reading!
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