After a decade and a half of the Internet wreaking havoc on the way we live our lives, the literary world has decided it’s time to tackle its influence. Hard on the heels of Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon’s take on Silicon Alley’s first tech boom, we have The Circle, a patched-together dystopian fantasy by Dave Eggers, who is quite clearly very worried about the pernicious influence of Facebook and its ilk.
Many, many words have already been devoted to the ways Mr. Eggers misunderstands Silicon Valley, and they’re justified. The novel reads like it’s cobbled together from what Mr. Eggers has overheard in the bars, coffee shops and parks of San Francisco. He’s nailed the sound of the tech world’s delusions of grandeur, but he doesn’t see them for the delusions they usually are.
In the 50 years since the publication of his first novel, V, in 1963, Thomas Pynchon has established himself as the foremost paranoiac of American fiction, balancing absurdist slapstick with the obsessive conviction of the most sincere (or deranged) conspiracy theorist. Though their settings have varied wildly, from colonial America to 1970s Los Angeles, Mr. Pynchon’s basic themes have remained remarkably consistent: the dark underside of technological progress, the hidden networks of power that bind corporate interests and government control, the inability of a single narrative to neatly contain the messy complexities of a given event. In this sense, the New York of late 2001 was a Pynchon novel waiting to happen, in which the failures of “late capitalist” speculation, in the form of the recently deflated tech bubble, meet 9/11 to form the 21st century’s Year Zero.
The journalist Andrew Blum was covering architecture when he got the idea for Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. “I was writing mostly about architecture, about buildings, but somehow writing about architecture meant sitting in front of a screen all day, then getting up and walking over and immediately looking at the other screen in my pocket. That seemed like a very strange way of relating to the physical world I was writing about.”
Mr. Blum decided to reverse his research process. Instead of using the Internet to research architecture, he started using architecture to research the Internet. And by architecture, of course, we mean the tubes.