Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Book review: The Hive, Morgan Baden and Barry Lyga (2019)

On 26 October at 5.15am (AEST) Antonio Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations, tweeted, “The global wave of demonstrations we are witnessing shows a growing lack of trust between people and political establishments. People are hurting and want to be heard. We must listen to the real problems of real people, and work to restore the social contract.”

I was reading ‘The Hive’ at the time this tweet appeared or, to put it more accurately, I had put down the book to use social media for an hour or so. But the message in Guterres’ comment – which referred to protests that had broken out over the previous month or so in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Chile – made me think, when I saw it, of Baden and Lyga’s young adult (YA) technothriller.

Its plot is based on a concept that two other people (not named here) gave to the authors, a married couple. In a future America, a social media platform that requires authentication for people to register to use it allows flashmobs to carry out a form of justice – Hive Justice, under law – in an authorised form of violent, and sometimes deadly, cancel culture. So the links with the present are strong (and the president, Dean Hythe, closely resembles, in his verbal mannerisms, Donald Trump).

We now live in a time when social media acts as a mirror to ourselves (we are judgemental and extreme in the form of expression we choose to communicate online).   In the future, the authors of this YA novel ask, what if the government uses this kind of tendency of the human species in order to control people, even to control whole communities. In such a scenario, Cassie McKinney, who is 16 or 17 at the time the book opens (she’s in what in the US is called the “senior year” of high school which, in Australian terms, is Year 12 of secondary school) get caught up in an episode of Hive Justice when she makes a tasteless joke at the expense of the US president’s daughter’s new baby. This part of the novel echoes themes explored in Mona Awad’s brilliant coming-of-age novel, ‘Bunny’. Cassie is trying to fit in with a group of socially adept girls in her school, and makes an error of judgement which turns into a crisis.

Under the type of “Hive Justice” that is subsequently unleashed, where people online Condemn Cassie for her gauche remark, she is allowed to be killed. She’s also not allowed to get rid of her phone. She must run to escape the mob which follows her (her phone alerts people nearby to her location). The people they come across behave like zombies, which is unremarkable when you consider the way, in real life, some people conduct themselves on social media. Cassie’s mother Rachel tries to help her daughter but the forces at play are beyond even her control. Then a young man, who has been attending one of Rachel’s classical history classes, steps in.

The forward movement in this work of fiction is strong, which is not surprising given the intended audience, and the use of delay to increase the suspense the reader feels is solid, but the authors have also made sure to capture how the protagonists feel and even, sometimes, their thoughts. The narrative is focalised through Cassie in some parts and through Rachel in others. It touches on a range of themes, including racism, intolerance, and the nature of individual agency.

There is a lot of highly-toned action of a physical nature, including dramatic escapes, but the novel’s message hinges on the question of how an individual should conduct him- or herself. Cassie’s father Harlan had been a hacker and his presence shadows Cassie’s experiences, though he had passed away shortly before the book opens. Harlan hovers over the universe the authors have created like a tutelary god, a presence that Cassie returns to time and time again as she navigates her frightening world.

Harlan had, among other things, written a piece of code that gives Cassie access to his “personality” using a computer program. She has conversations with “him” when she is alone in her room, away from her mother (who, she thinks, doesn’t understand her). And while he had also helped her to become a good programmer, when push comes to shove Cassie has to make decisions by herself that will determine the outcome of events.

By the end of the book the emotions are running high but there are, thankfully, no simple answers. I give this novel five stars. I thought I saw in it a reference to Don DeLillo’s wonderful short story, ‘The Angel Esmerelda’ (1994) but I am not entirely sure.

The other works of fiction I was reminded of while reading this book were ‘Surveillance’ (2015) by Bernard Keane, Michael Brissenden’s 2017 ‘The List’, and Caroline Overington’s 2018 ‘The Ones You Trust’. In each of these novels, social media features heavily. All three of these Australian writers are journalists. Baden and Lyga and the people who came up with the ideas behind ‘The Hive’ have followed the indicators offered by writers such as these and gone to the next level: a full-throttle dystopia.

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