As the UK trembles endlessly on the long drawn-out brink of Brexit, Sam Byers imagines what might come after. His furiously smart near-future satire is set partly in the fictional everytown of Edmundsbury, and partly in the digital world, from the shallows of Twitter to the murky depths of multinational tech companies. Itâs both a rollicking farce of political exhaustion and social collapse, and a subtle investigation into the slippery, ever-evolving relationship between words and deeds.
Sleepy Edmundsbury is under pressure from outside forces: global tech giant Green is quietly insinuating itself into the townâs infrastructure, while building company Downton is strong-arming the last remaining residents out of the crumbling Larchwood housing estate with an eye on redevelopment. And then a van draws up in the market square, and masked men calling themselves âthe Griefersâ stage a happening that appears to hold residents to digital ransom, displaying tantalising screenshots with the slogan âWhat donât you want to share?â As a demonstration that âthe cosy little box weâve all fashioned to pour our ids into isnât as secure as we thoughtâ, they ask that one person from the town step forward to offer up their web history, or victims will be exposed at random.
Apart from frail, elderly Darkin, stubbornly clinging on to his squalid Larchwood flat, every character has online secrets. Many are drawn from the chatterati for whom âleaving London was the new moving to Londonâ, including Robert, an opportunistic blogger who finds himself making the traditionally decades-long journey from left to right on the political spectrum with dizzying speed, and his researcher girlfriend Jess. Jess and her friend Deepa both work â or perhaps play â âat the blurry interstice between the real and the virtualâ, Jess creating free-floating online personas and Deepa searching out the real women behind the anonymous images âfolded into the scenery and libidinal economyâ of the web. Then thereâs bumbling rightwing columnist Hugo Bennington and his ridiculous political adviser, productivity guru Teddy. They are hoping to bag the seat of Edmundsbury for Ukip-alike party England Always while struggling to keep the emerging fascist militia Brute Force under control for fear that it âmakes the âproperâ right look badâ.
At the heart of the tightly sprung plot is Trina, who lives on the Larchwood estate and works at Green managing âmicrotaskersâ: insecure home workers whose labour is so atomised they have no hope of unionising or even knowing what they are working on. In a cast mainly made up of scathingly ventriloquised grotesques, Trina has the virtue of being, as one 2D tech-bro admiringly remarks, âa fully functioning human beingâ. But as a black woman who responds to Benningtonâs claim that white men are being sidelined with the unwise tweet â#whitemalegenocide.Lolâ, she makes a lot of angry white men even angrier. Her tweet is weaponised by those with a vested interest in real-world conflict, and real-life consequences ensue.
Though there are fleeting references to âstreet-level violence and creeping intimidationâ, Byers is not so much projecting a specific post-Brexit future for the UK as exploring, with a cold and horrified eye, what we are only starting to discover about the reach and control of global tech companies, and the political and individual effects of internet saturation. The novel is horribly pertinent in the light of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, as well as online misogyny and #MeToo.
Throughout the book, Byers worries away at the hollowing out of public discourse. âHatred equals hate-clicks, so, you know, win,â says Robertâs obnoxious editor Silas when Robert angsts about the abuse heâs getting below the line. âLike, dislike. Whatâs the difference?â Byers also delights in writing the kind of sentence that would have been gobbledegook a decade ago â âJess popped to the toilet to tweetâ; âIâm calling a huddleâ; âtheir maps had failed to updateâ â as well as spotlighting the contemporary euphemisms of real-life domination and control: kettling, decanting. The Griefers invite one scapegoat to digitally submit their online records: when the mob chooses Trina, and surrounds her house screaming âsubmitâ, the word regains its ancient analogue menace. The logic and language of the digital realm leak, inevitably, into the physical world, and characters waver with queasy alienation between the two: the East Anglian woodland Jess drives past appears to her ânot so much as nature but as a glitch in her optical experience of nature – a screen-smearâ.
As in his Costa-shortlisted first novel Idiopathy, Byers is interested in the raw intimacies of relationships as well as in broader social satire. Jess and Robert are living through the death of love, unable these days to argue or to look each other in the eye. Having channelled her negativity towards him into an online persona, at home Jess is guiltily sweet: the donning of a digital veil leads to real-life disguise. The fatal loss of authenticity between them is a mirror of the bookâs wider world.
The comic tropes can be familiar â reminiscent of the hipsters of Nathan Barley, the corporate insanities of W1A, Black Mirror â but Byers ramps up the stakes with expert control. The novel is madly funny, yet itâs also a careful exploration of the contemporary dichotomy between solipsism and interconnectedness. The way social media put each of us at the centre of our own personal web (for Robert âthe world was his world only. Everything else was just contextâ) is set against the deeper truth that everything bleeds into everything else in an endless chain of consequence â there is no decision as simple as yes/no, leave/remain.
The masked, intimidating Griefers stand âas if weaponry was suggested but not presentâ. This is the level at which Brexit infects the book: as a nebulous anxiety about the approaching future, âso rapid in its occurrence and uncertain in its shapeâ. Byers dedicates a great deal of time to pricking the self-regarding pretensions of the commentariat, still babbling away when, as Jess puts it, âall the while, outside, in the world they claimed both to consider and depict, events were occurring that shrunk their fears to irrelevanceâ. They are an easy target, but perhaps thatâs the point.
- Perfidious Albion is published by Faber. To order a copy for Â£13.59 (RRP Â£15.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over Â£10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of Â£1.99.