Life & Culture

The Future review: Gadgets, gizmos and AI Armageddon

Naomi Alderman’s new Bond-spoof novel is pacy and easy to lose yourself in, but lacks the humanity and thoughtfulness of its forerunner The Power


The Future
By Naomi Alderman
Fourth Estate £20

Naomi Alderman’s previous novel The Power was a captivating tour-de-force that followed in Margaret Atwood’s footsteps to ask how the world would change if women rather than men were physically dominant.

Winner of the Baileys Prize for Fiction, it raised provocative questions about power and gender and channelled a millennia of female rage, while creating a reality so vivid and characters so engaging I could hardly put it down.

The Future is almost as gripping. It follows a trifecta of dodgy, if not outright evil tech billionaires, controllers of three platforms that go far beyond the (at least public) capabilities of those of the real world but are clearly incarnations of Amazon, Apple and Facebook.

With their cartoon-villain names, Bond-spoof gadgets and unchecked egos, Lenk Skeltish, Ellen Bywater and Zimri Nommik are as broad-brush as they come — character complexity is evidently not Alderman’s objective here.

Orbiting the trio meanwhile is Martha Einhorn, long-suffering assistant to Skeltish but also survivor of a biblical-throwback cult, who spends her free time on murky online channels debating how ancient theology relates to modern life. As the web warriors scrap it out, we are treated to what essentially resemble unedited Reddit threads and similarly are a drag to read. Martha, who turns out to be exerting outsized influence, never really comes to life.

The most intriguing character is Lai Zhen, a survival influencer with a tormented past. We meet her fleeing a murderer in a garish shopping mall in Singapore (a magnificently realised temple of consumerism where there is always a festival, holiday or awareness day to celebrate).

It is frothy and ridiculous, but despite her literally freezing an assassin to death, Zhen is the only character who comes across as fully formed. I wished I was reading a book about what led her to become who she was.

Without giving too much away, Zhen inadvertently finds herself stranded with Skeltish et al, offering us a bird’s-eye-view on what happens when those who have everything are stripped of control.

The book is never dull, and Alderman’s imagination is on show with the various survival gadgets and gizmos she conjures. Likewise her experience as an online game creator shines through; as one threat is addressed, up pops another.

Reading about these people brought to mind Dave Eggers’ 2013 satire The Circle, which so effectively skewered the social media giants a decade ago, but in a much more restrained way, with the dystopian picture developing over time, so gradually that you believed what you were reading could unfold.

By comparison The Future is all high- stakes drama and bold concept, with a helter-skelter’s worth of twists and turns. Alderman certainly poses interesting questions about whether technology is unstoppable, how far society has strayed from its foundational purpose, and what sacrifices might be needed to save the world.

Whether technology, and especially artificial intelligence, stand to doom us is a live discussion and Alderman successfully taps into fears about whether we are giving away too much of our freedom for an easy life.

Yet while her novel is pacy and easy to lose yourself in, it lacks the humanity and thoughtfulness of its forerunner The Power, which invokes a world that convinces despite its science-fiction elements.

In contrast, The Future feels like a fantasy from the get-go.

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