While all this is fun and erudite, it comes at the expense of character development and emotional connection. I found myself longing to feel an Atwoodian gut-wrench. Or something — anything other than remote intellectual curiosity. For readers who like to nod at clever references, the imaginative Zed will be a delight, and it will no doubt gain many admirers. Those, on the other hand, who crave novels with complex, believable characters who grow, might find it all a bit relentless.
Another requirement of dystopian fiction is consistency of vision. Luckily Kavenna is a Very Intelligent Author. Her imagined world is convincing (except for the flat whites, perhaps: coffee trends change so quickly) and darkly humorous. She remains at a quizzical remove from the action, meaning that, for the most part, the reader doesn’t much care about the characters, but Kavenna’s satire has bite all the same and often rings uncomfortably true.
Imagine a denser, intellectually chewier and very British version of dystopian tech satire The Circle, by Dave Eggers, and you’ll have some idea of this. Beetle, the internet giant at the heart of Zed, is a horrifying Google/Apple/Facebook hybrid... Free will, determinism and quantum theory are all grist to Kavenna’s mill and, while the rabbit holes she peers down can be dizzying, Zed manages to be snort-inducingly funny, too.
Needless to say, it’s also chilling: not least because it’s set not in the far-off future, but in 2023 . . .