Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Panopticon of Social Media - Kim Curran's Glaze and Dystopian YA

'Glaze is a story about a girl who feels lost in the crowd. Drowning in the noise of so many voices', Kim Curran writes in the afterword to her dystopian novel. It is a book about 'the dangers of social networks', she explains, 'and yet, the very fact you are holding it in your hands right now is evidence of just how wonderful those same networks can be'. (For a great interview and background info check out an interview with Kim on which includes the TED talk that inspired her). It seems apt that Glaze is Curran's first self-published novel, this was partly because it allowed her to accelerate the process so it stayed topical (it is eerily prescient about Google Glass!).

This is all appropriate because Glaze has had to be promoted almost exclusively through social media - the very thing it simultaneously heralds and critiques. Through this very process its point is cemented. I heard about it on Twitter and seized the opportunity since it was an offer.

Glaze is about a society which allows people (unless they are part of an excluded underclass) to be chipped and access an optical overlay social network at the age of 16. The name mirrors the way their eyes glaze over and empty when they do this. 15 year old Petri Quinn (daughter of Glaze's creator) is desperate to join the legions of people on it, feeling ostracised and alienated all the while she is disengaged. So desperate that she would do anything. The chip she gets illegally implanted with has no filter so she is inundated with all the information - enough to drive her mad. With the help of Ethan, who is also shut out of the system for most of the book, Petri must see Glaze for what it really is and what it is about to become.

As with many young adult dystopias, I had mixed feelings (except for THG, which I think transcends that genre). As in Divergent I found the romance and teenage crush material cloying and misplaced. It might just be me but I hate the romance thrown into books (particularly dystopias!) as if it has to be there (this isn't a criticism of Curran so much as the state of the market). Neither male love-interest was particularly well developed or had a lot of point. (I don't mind the romance in THG because it serves to illustrate a political dichotomy and different approaches to revolution and rebellion - hence works on many levels).

Petri was a fairly interesting heroine, perhaps too normal. (or what the market leads us to believe is normal - why are teenage crushes the main tropes of relatability? In many dystopias love is what has suffered and is not relevant) In some ways - as a narrator I found her obsessing over boys mildly irritating but this was only minor. Her family situation was interesting - if anything I would have liked the book to be longer and cement this side of development and further explore those relationships. Petri's name comes from the means of her birth - artificial insemination, or a petri dish which was an interesting quirky detail. Max, as the ultimate villain, was slightly disembodied, though perhaps purposefully.

With a background in old-school dystopia reading I would have perhaps liked it to get a little more gritty and bleak - perhaps an ultimate alienation or a failure in transmitting that fateful message at the end. The ending followed the YA dystopian mould by remaining slightly ambiguous and unresolved - which I did appreciate. The degree of uncertainty over the future and whether events will just repeat themselves is crucial to this being credible though the final events did feel slightly rushed. The final line 'as we step out onto the road, I look up at a drone camera above and smile' is haunting. It seems innocent at first but is Petri still ultimately controlled by the social media around her? Wanting to get sucked back in? Susceptible to its manipulation on some level? Does a human being's fear of being alone drive them to collectivise themselves in ways that can ultimately be harmful and soul-destroying?

I couldn't help thinking of the notions of trending (which filters what you're exposed to in a personalised way) on Twitter, ships, fandoms and fan armies... individuals becoming collectivised in a virtual militarised way. It's not difficult to foresee dystopia in these sides of Twitter - the ability to group up and attack, defend and ignore other views, engaging only in one reality is dangerous. (As Max explains: 'People like being told what to do, what to think, who to like. It makes life simple for them. No one really wants the weight of all that choice' 427 and 'It's only in defining yourself against another that you feel like you belong. An enemy to unite against' 427It's no longer enough to have individual opinions and likes and dislikes, they must be affirmed by others - they depend on them.

One passage echoes the infamous speech in Huxley's Brave New World -

'we're not supposed to be perfect! We're supposed to make mistakes and screw up... but you've robbed us of all that. You and your filters. It shuts down our potential. Limits our world. Restricts the type of people we meet. The type of ideas we're exposed to. And for what? To keep us happy? Safe?' 
'The alternative is chaos.'
'I'd rather risk the chaos of freedom than be denied the choice. Choice is everything.' 429

I definitely think this is a useful and exciting book for a Young Adult audience, and worth a read for others interested in where social media may take us. I wouldn't say the heroine is a ground-breaking one (I am very interested in female hero figures in dystopia) but it is certainly a topical dystopia and has started a discourse that is very relevant to us all and that other authors will  hopefully engage with in dystopian literature. I am someone who has read a lot of dystopian fiction, new and old, and a lot of young adult literature in this vein so obviously my view is very subjective and tainted by this.

Kim Curran has written a niched, current and compelling novel which deserves attention and promotion on the social media platform especially. I wanted to spread the word about this book and see what people think about it and the issues it engages with so do comment.

Further quotes and food for thought:

'What better way to stop conflict than by ensuring no one with opposing views ever met? 399
'It's like if you're not on Glaze, you don't exist.' 85

'Everyone on Glaze is a walking CCTV, and they don't even know it.' 263 - how much does this resonate with the spying accusations around GCHQ etc?

'Some cultures used to think cameras took our souls. Maybe that's what's happened to us. Maybe our need to document our every thought, our every emotion, has robbed us of everything. Stripped us down to nothing but pixels on a screen' 366

'You were going to call it Panopticon... a prison. Where everyone's watching everyone' 339 is social media a virtual prison? The ultimate form of control?