Monday, 16 July 2012

REVIEWS: Andy Marino and Kate Harrison (plus some social network thoughts)

In some books, having social media around would be a BAD THING, e.g. this (which is HILARIOUS and I didn't write) and this (which is less hilarious but I did write it)

Previously in books and life, the course of the plot could turn on a letter - a document that could carry the vital piece of information about who loves/stabbed/is the real father of who or who is really a wizard and gets to go to Hogwarts (<-- I am STILL WAITING, JK...) . Now information is everywhere. You can see hundreds of updates on the everyday lives of people, their pets, their children, their bowels (perhaps I should change my friends). And the details of your own life are reflected back at you when you see adverts based on what you have been searching for and emailing about. I have recently seen adverts for cats, fertiliser and 'cheap plants' pop up (based on an email about my cat deciding to start pooing on my chilli plant), which I like to think sums up my life nicely. 

Some authors are exploring the possibilities, and dangers, this information overload offers. I have picked two books that incorporate social media, showing the way it connects what used to be separate, and at the same time can completely isolate people. Oh and they tell pretty fabulous stories along the way. 

Unison 3.0 by Andy Marino
Catnip Books
Unison 3.0 gives us a future where the social network has become an alternative, and better, reality. Once plugged in, you can explore a digital world where BetterLife products, tailored to your tastes, are plentiful and where you have thousands of Friends. But not everyone can afford a log in. Mistletoe lives under the canopy – a giant ceiling that separates the rich ‘topside’ city from a very different world below. When Ambrose Truax, the son of the creator of Unison, finds himself subcanopy he and Mistletoe find that they are both haunted by the same dream. Unison is hiding a dark secret at its core and they must discover it before the next upgrade endangers everyone.

Soul Fire by Kate Harrison
Indigo (Orion)

When Alice got an email from her murdered sister Meggie she thought it was a sick joke. In fact it was Alice's link to Soul Beach - Facebook for the Dead. On Soul Beach everyone is young and beautiful and they live in paradise, while in the real world their deaths remain unexplained. Alice knows that if she can solve Meggie's murder, her sister will be able to move on, but can she face letting her go a second time? When the prime suspect is himself killed, Alice realises the killer must be nearby. But what she doesn't know is - she's next.


In Unison, users' thoughts are not their own. Thoughtstreams flow into the central hub to be analysed by Unison's programmers, the most prominent being 15-year-old prodigy Ambrose Truax. He is an expert at processing personal data and then using it to help create the Better Life products that keep people plugging into Unison. 
So Unison users may feel they have been given power to make things happen and claim a Better Life, but you wonder how free they really are when their every move is predicted, broadcast and tracked. Mistletoe living under the canopy may not have access to Better Food or hologram clothes, but she has grown up free to be anonymous. She just hops on her scooter (Nelson) and explores the city. This all changes when she meets Ambrose.  

In Soul Fire there is a murder mystery plot at work except where once there might have been a trail of fingerprints, a letter and a surprising confession from a maid, there are mystery websites, encrypted IP addresses and an entire online community of unexplained dead people. Alice has discovered a website, Burning Truths, which has been set up to vindicate the prime suspect – Meggie’s boyfriend Tim. The person behind the website knows something and Alice wants to find them - especially when they start posting crucial pieces of evidence. Alice's cybergeek friend Lewis is on the case to track them down, while Alice's route to information is Soul Beach. As long as she doesn't ask direct questions and just allows users to tell her about their lives then she keeps her log-in.     


The hours Alice spends on Soul Beach aren't just to find clues. On Soul Beach everyone is beautiful, Alice has a boyfriend and she can see her sister. It is a dangerously addictive place and Alice is soon spending most of her time in the real world plotting when she can next log in. It is a worrying side of social media that someone could start to prefer the version of them that exists online to the person they really are. In Unison 3.0 users 'shimmer' in to the network and feel a sense of euphoria - with an environment created to please them and the chance to make millions of connections, they feel popular and free from real-world concerns. Shimmering out, however, makes them feel nauseous and depressed - again the virtual world is an addictive escape from the real one. 

However, happy statuses can hide an unhappy person and the image someone decides to project on a social network can be a heavily edited version of the truth. When Ambrose is exploring Unison no longer as a programmer, but on his mission to discover the truth about the organisation, he meets people who are not who they say they are, or who despite their great Unison profiles are desperately lonely. The perfect faces on Soul Beach distract from the horrible ways their lives ended in the real world and Alice can no more trust what she finds there than the people around her in the real world - one of whom is a killer.  


If you can have thousands of Friends and still be glum, then clearly the crucial thing is finding real connections among all the chat, feeds, statuses and pictures of kittens wearing tiny hats. The most frightening thing about Alice's story (well, apart from being stalked by a killer) is that she can't trust anyone.  In the real world any one of the people close to her  could be the killer. She is also drifting away from her school friend Cara as her secret online life is taking over. In her Soul Beach life she has her sister and her boyfriend, but it is a life that she can only virtually be part of, and throughout the book you wonder if the mysterious online world is any safer. 

In Unison 3.0 Mistletoe meets Ambrose. They could not be more different - one from the heart of Unison, one who lives underneath the radar. And at first they struggle to understand each other - Ambrose, with no access to thoughtstreams or profile data, finds it unsettling not knowing what Mistletoe is thinking. Mistletoe thinks that Ambrose, with his fancy hologram suit, has no idea about real life. But soon they each find the other person creeping into their thoughts. What's going on is a good old-fashioned connection based on something real - and it is the thumping heartbeat of the book. 


These books made me think about reading and social media-ing in general. Sharing thoughts on stories has always been a way of getting to know someone, but now the options for sharing diverge and multiply into an insanely huge INTERCONNECTING WEB OF FUN (or 'interfun'). The private experience of just you and the book can be followed by a flurry of tweeting and commenting and blogging and clicking on stuff and finding cool stuff that links to other cool stuff. There was a recent Soul Fire Twitter event, for example, which took place on Soul Beach and attendees could try and pick up clues to the mystery. There is also a real Burning Truths websiteUnison 3.0 makes you think about what social media might mean in the future - could we have a Facebook that you can walk around in? Or a Twitter where you actually follow people? (Which sounds a bit stalky now I've said it. They probably wouldn't let me join).  

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