-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson–
In Luke Kennard’s debut novella, the Holophin is a tiny, incredibly-powerful, highly-personalised computer. While humanity has forever been developing tools and technology to make life easier – the wheel, the plough, the sail, the loom, the steam engine, the computer, the telephone – in recent decades the drive has also been to make these tools individual, for example the mobile phone as opposed to the household landline. At the same time, those devices are capable of an increasing number of tasks; the mobile takes/makes calls, but also sends messages (texts and emails), takes photos, surfs the web (including social media), keeps a calendar, plans routes, plays games, wakes us up, plays music and videos, writes/edits documents and can probably do far more as well. What’s more, it fits in your pocket and you can take it almost everywhere.
But with a rise in technological capabilities comes a rise in fear of that technology and what it can do to humans. I don’t mean the dangers of radiation from phone masts or handsets – though that probably should be a concern – I mean the fears that technology is becoming increasingly autonomous and has begun to run our lives, that people genuinely believe they can’t live without their smartphones, that civilisation would collapse without wi-fi access and that vast data servers hold swathes of information about every technology user on the planet. The other day I even saw a TV news report claiming that governments – obeying their ‘corporate masters’ – can (indeed, are obliged to) track individuals’ locations to within a hundred metres, using their mobile phone signals.
Maybe those fears are unfounded, but even if we aren’t heading towards a Terminator-style war when the machines finally take over, there’s no denying the increasing presence and ubiquity of technology in the developed world.
At the same time, we’re bombarded with adverts for products that offer simple solutions to complicated problems (solutions made possible by advancing technology): combat the signs of ageing with this easy-to-use lotion; become sexually irresistible with this deodorant; buy this game and train your brain to be smarter! Those are just generic ones: the internet and Google can quite easily give each user specific ads based on your previous buying habits, your browser history and subject headings from your email inbox (though some of its choices can still be charmingly bizarre). You can chose to see this as a useful, personalised internet experience, or as technology’s further encroachment into your life.
As if with that in mind, Kennard’s novella opens with an advert for the Holophin, a dolphin-shaped sticker of immense (at least partly autonomous) processing power that promises help with, among other things, ‘weight loss or gain; confidence; alleviation of social anxiety […] happiness; concentration and focus […] insomnia, anti-social behaviour, addictions and phobias’ as well as grief management and self-discipline. On top of all that, the Holophin provides a built-in(to the brain) media centre and personal organiser which can not only arrange meetings with other people’s Holophins, but even attend them for the wearer too. If the creeping dominance of smartphones worries you, the Holophin is your worst nightmare, Kennard’s extrapolation from modern fears and trends. But at least it’s a cute dolphin shape.
The best sci-fi takes our modern-day fears and concerns and puts them in a different context, allowing us to see ourselves from a new angle, without the potentially comforting surrounds of the modern world. We can consider Hatsuka and Max – the young characters in Holophin – with a disinterest that would be much harder when considering our own use of, say, a smartphone. In his first novella, Kennard is able to explore the idea of politely domineering technology as well as looking at how that technology can develop a life of its own and raise rather deeper questions. One of the Holophins has started writing poetry, and another is working on the first Holophin novel – where do we consider these endeavours in the context of art as a means of human expression and creativity? And how much are humans actually limited by their reliance on technology: for example, how much do we now rely on autocorrect and autofill functions when typing, rather than remembering how to spell for ourselves?
As in good sci-fi, the setting here feels contemporary, it could be the early twenty-first century – except for the occasional references to, say, the fact that countries no longer have any meaning and corporations are everything (do you use an iPhone, BlackBerry or Android? a Microsoft computer or an Apple one?); corporations that fight over sales and staff like nations used to fight over resources and territory. There’s a hint of Margaret Attwood’s Oryx & Crake in the grooming of highly intelligent youngsters by powerful, quasi-governmental corporations hungry for technological developments – exposing the idea of nations as just one way of organising people; here, corporations provide schools, and education is paid for by working a shift or two in the factory. Who needs a government when the corporation provides its own housing, security, schools, shops and employment opportunities? The Cadbury brothers would be proud.
The dangers of powerful computers plugged right into the brain become apparent when Hatsuka loses all grip on reality and the novella’s narrative fragments. It’s at this point that Holophin becomes rather less accessible and more of a surreal whirl through fantasy, the subconscious, virtual reality and corporate competition.
Whether you’re left wanting a Holophin of your own probably depends on your attitude to technology’s impact on our lives. Is it an enhancement and a helper, or insidious and a threat? Holophin lets you believe either, but carries a warning that we’re bound to find out one way or the other eventually.