ZED by Joanna Kavenna
Kirkus Star


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Kavenna returns to the existential debate explored in her last novel (Come to the Edge, 2013, etc.) in order to further probe the question of free will in the age of deep data-mining.

In an alarmingly plausible near future, tech giant Beetle has risen to global prominence in the fields of transportation, communication, health, security, media, and everything else. The society it has engineered is safer, more efficient, and totally devoid of surprise until the insidious presence of Zed begins to derange the algorithm. In London, upper level Beetle Douglas Varley is awakened by his digital Very Intelligent Personal Assistant, or “Veep,” Scrace Dickens, to the news that something has gone terribly wrong. Without any prior warning from any of Beetle’s predicative programs, perfectly ordinary citizen George Mann has returned home from a night of anomalous hard drinking to murder his wife and two sons. In the hours that follow, the supposedly infallible Anti-Terror Droid, or ANT, sent to apprehend Mann makes a miscalculation and executes Lionel Bigman, an innocent bus driver and British Army veteran. A massive damage control effort follows in which the timorous Varley; Beetle’s narcissistic, youth-obsessed CEO, Guy Matthias; and the hacker-turned–Beetle IT guru Francesca Amerensekera attempt to tighten the already iron grip Beetle holds over the totally voluntary participants in its benign social revolution (which—as Beetle controls all currency and thus all means of social mobility—is everyone) while scrambling to stem the spreading chaos created by Zed, “the category term for instability.” Meanwhile, Eloise Jayne, a hard-nosed investigator for the Beetle backed National Anti-Terrorism and Security Office, and David Strachey, editor-in-chief of the Beetle-owned Times, Daily Star, Sun, and the Daily Record, seek the truth of Zed and its implications for a society used to the placidity of a near-total parent state. In the hands of a lesser writer, the novel’s convoluted plot, burgeoning cast of characters, and barbed use of Beetle brand tech-speak would leave the reader hopelessly tangled in the what of the novel before they ever got to the philosophical why. Kavenna, however, is a diligent scholar of her form, melding a massively complex plot à la Thomas Pynchon and the wicked social satire of Evelyn Waugh with a healthy dose of Gogol’s absurdist dysphoria thrown in for good measure.

Complex, funny, prescient, difficult: Kavenna's novel tackles nothing less than everything as it blurs the lines between real and virtual.

Pub Date: Jan. 14th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-385-54548-8
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2019


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