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. It’s both a rollicking farce of political exhaustion and social collapse, and a subtle investigation into the slippery, ever-evolving relationship between words and deeds.
The comedy is of that dark nature where language begins to buckle. One of the “Brute Force” enforcers, sent to “take care of” the unappealing and pitiable Darkin, informs him he is worried “a load of people” might come round here “wanting to do a genocide”. The placing of that “a” is perfect. He clearly doesn’t know what “genocide” even means, except that it is a lightning-rod to galvanise resentment.
Towards the end, we get the true horror of the situation. “You think we can do this kind of research on lab rats?… There’s nothing more to be learned from electrocuting rodents in mazes.” In the days of revelations about Cambridge Analytica, Byers’ novel could hardly have greater resonance. Yet, as with all comic fiction, happenstance leads to reckoning. Life, unfortunately, is not comic fiction.
It involves a tech company scheming to rig out the revamped estate with sinister gadgetry intended to make life harder for the poor. But the project hits the skids when a resident refuses to leave, finding himself in the eye of an internet storm. The hounds of Fleet Street 2.0 seize upon him as a symbol of a left-behind white working-class. One key thread involves two journalists who, beginning at opposite ends of the political spectrum, converge in a race for clicks. It’s sharply observed and full of startling reversals — I’m still wondering exactly what happens at the end.