NOVEL EXCERPT: In his latest novel, The Information Editor, author and lawyer Miles Hunt imagines a world in the not too-distant-future where unbridled neoliberal greed and rampant technological authoritarianism have truly taken hold.
He sat at his desk in an office 165 floors above the city. He looked out one of the office windows and up at the moon. It was a quarter moon, lying back as if dozing carelessly on the night sky. His eyes darted across the starless heavens to the other moon – the second moon – constructed by a team of astronauts and engineers when he was a young lad. He remembered when they were building it; everyone had been in collective awe as construction went on, and he had looked up with wonder at the magnificence of mankind, knowing he was a part of history. Then they painted it red and white, with the name of its soft-drink sponsor emblazoned across the surface.
It was brighter than the old moon, yet lacked its authenticity. They should have spent their money putting an advertisement on the real moon, he thought. But then maybe that would be too hard – too much paint, too great a distance to travel with all that paint. Plus, he had to admit, the new one was better value: it was perpetually full and round, and the advertisement could be seen nonstop, 24 hours a day – unless it was overcast and covered by clouds, the big cumulonimbus clouds created when rain was required by one of the big corporations. On those days, the whole sky went blank, covering the satellite advertisements like an untouched canvas… beautiful with so much potential. Until it rained, poured where it was needed for crops or industry, then stopped, just as quickly, like a shower tap turned off by an omnipotent God. The God, of course, was the Rain Maker Geoneering Company.
He turned back to his computers. “Log off,” he commanded. He glanced at the clock at the top right of the screen located near his name and employment unit: Johnson, Information Editing. It was getting late and he wanted to get home and relax – watch a show on the HV or muck around on his VR gaming pod. Most of the other employees in his unit had already left for the night. He’d seen them trundle out about an hour earlier, just after 21:00, when the workday ‘officially’ended.
He walked to the lift, head down, his thoughts filled with the remnants of articles and blogs he’d spent the day editing. He pressed the down button and waited, tapping his feet impatiently on the floor. The lift arrived. The doors opened. There were two other employees in the lift, standing on either side, as if separated by an invisible wall. He didn’t know them, which was understandable, as there were thousands of employees at Gorilla Industries and he barely knew anyone beyond his unit.
He nodded. One nodded back. The other stared straight ahead. Security, thought Johnson, and he was hit by a wave of panic.
He wanted to wave them on, get the next lift, but he couldn’t. Not now. It would look suspicious, as if there was something to hide. He got in. The security officer spoke into his earpiece microphone, an index finger pressed down on the other ear. He turned to look straight at Johnson, then the other man. A micro stare on each – just enough to check them both off against the Company data-base.
The lift descended, flowed on for a second, then stopped with a jolt. The doors opened and the security officer alighted, a sneer written across his face. Johnson breathed a sigh of relief and nodded again to his colleague. The colleague stared back.
“Busy day?” Johnson asked, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“Always busy here. Too busy,” the man replied in a slightly offhand manner. He was stout, like a beer bottle, and balding. Johnson wondered for a second why the man didn’t use balding cream or one of the common regrowth tablets.
“They could always hire a few more staff,” the man added, pursing his lips.
Johnson was surprised to hear such words from a fellow employee. They were almost treasonous; the sort of thing that could get the man an infraction notice, or worse. Even hearing the words, and not reporting it, was a breach of the employment contract. But there was truth in what the man was saying. They were all working long hours for little reward, with no end in sight. But what can I do? Johnson thought. Even if they hired more employees, it wouldn’t be more people like them, but robots and automated employee programs – anything to help the Company save on costs.
It took a few minutes for the lift to reach the ground floor. Johnson wanted to ask the bald fellow his name, but felt intimidated or shy, or both. Talking to strangers was not his strong point. And not what you did around the Office Tower. Instead, he blinked on his Eye-Tab. He scrolled over the face-scanner icon set permanently to the main window screen. Thought about opening, then held back. This is not how he wanted to live, or learn about his colleagues. But then he blinked, subconsciously, or maybe an accidental twitch of the eye, and before he knew it, the face-scanner had opened. As he looked at the man standing before him, a passport photo appeared in Johnson’s vision with various employment details, including the bald man’s name, position and unit. He didn’t even read the name. He was distracted by a flashing red alert across the bottom of the screen: TERMINATION WARNING.
Johnson looked away.
“Did you get a good look at my profile?” asked the man, a psychotic smile wrapped across his hardened face.
“No, no,” cried Johnson, his cheeks glowing red. He yearned for the lift to hurry up and reach the ground. It seemed to slow a little in preparation for the final stop, but then took its time to get there, as if the lift was relishing his moment of anguish.
“I’m sorry,” Johnson stammered. “It just opened. It was an accident. I never normally use the scanner.”
The man shook his head and muttered something under his breath. Something about being no better than the security guard.
The lift finally reached the lobby. Johnson jumped out and bounded across the tiled floor towards the tower exit. The bald man remained, unmoved, as the lift doors shut him out of sight.
Johnson turned off his Eye-Tab with a slow, deliberate blink, in a way thankful now that he hadn’t seen the bald fellow’s name. It was better this way. He had come across termination warnings before. They were universally dreaded. For those who received them, things usually ended badly: a trail of dissatisfaction following them around, other employees avoiding them as if they had a contagious disease, until, eventually, they were let go and, like a pauper cast out of the city, thrown from their secure homes in the Gorilla Industries Employee Village. He’d heard rumours about the Company raiding their wage accounts to cover any potential losses that might arise from their termination, any overpayments mysteriously realised, and then taking any goods found in their home units, selling the jewellery and expensive items, and sending the rest to the incinerator.
He had seen it all with his friend, Eileen, a few years back. She had been marched out without a chance to collect her things or say goodbye; left with nothing, and probably nowhere to go but the slums. He never found out what happened to her or where she ended up. One moment she was there, a bubbly addition to the Information Team, and the next she was gone: her work email deleted, her social media profiles blocked from the server, her whole existence erased from the Company systems. No one ever spoke of her again. It was as if she never existed, forever deleted from their collective memories and from the Gorilla Information Network. But he still remembered her grey bob and little pointy nose, and how she wore a purple felt hat that matched her lipstick. She was like a surrogate mother to him, and was one of the few colleagues he’d actually visited in the village. She had told him grand stories of her childhood in Ireland, in the days before the corporations took over everything; when people worked shorter hours and spent whole weekends together, eating and drinking and laughing and singing.
Johnson peered back towards the lift, hoping for another glimpse of the bald man. He was nowhere to be seen. As he reached the door, he pressed his palm flat against his fist in mini-salute, whispered an apology, and then prayed to the Economy, asking for it to stay strong, and to make sure the man’s warning didn’t end up as a full-blown termination. The chap wasn’t particularly nice during our brief interaction in the lift, thought Johnson, but he was still a person; a colleague and fellow real-life employee of Gorilla Industries. No one deserved to live under the constant threat of termination. Johnson felt guilty about the scan, even if it was an accident. It was something he tried to avoid, despite the benefits proliferated by the Company: shopping dollars and bonus points for every face scanned.
Johnson hurried across an open concrete yard that separated the Office Tower and the Employee Village. He breathed out slowly, then sucked in the cool night air. It was only a short walk now to his home unit, and he appreciated the ease with which he could get home. It made the 14-hour days seem a fraction shorter. There was no travel time. No need to catch an electric car or hop on one of the shuttle trains to the outer districts. Especially this late – when the darkness of the night increased the threat of ecoterrorists and anti-globalists, and just being outside the compound walls increased the chances of being caught up in an attack.
He trudged under a boom light that lit up the entire concrete yard. It was empty, save for a few stragglers heading home. Most of his colleagues would already be back in their home units, asleep or watching their holo-visions. There were a couple of others he could see under the yard lights and the radiance of the two moons. They walked towards the village and then turned down little paths or up driveways to their dwellings. Johnson followed. He looked back and recognised Raymond Melville coming from the tower. He was about to stop and wait for him, but Melville was busy on his Eye-Tab. Johnson could see the flashing of light reflected in one of Melville’s pupils; could sense the information being fed directly into the eye. He seemed totally absorbed in whatever it was he was watching, like a programmer nutting out code.
Johnson flicked on his own Eye-Tab. A screen appeared in his vision. He could still perceive the world in front of him: the concrete yard, the gate, the neat little houses lined up in rows, the manicured gardens flanked by pink footpaths. But he could also see information superimposed on top; the semitranslucent text and images fanned out across the micro-suburbs of the Employee Village. One reality upon another, both equally his.
“Search news,” he said softly, the pin-sized earphone, barely visible in his left ear, picking up the command and sending the orders directly to the Eye-Tab screen. The Gorilla Industries logo sat superimposed at the top left of the digital images appearing on his eye, like a watermark, reminding him of the source. A little gorilla face, brown with fierce black eyes and a bright-yellow banana smile etched into the corner of everything he searched was a small price to pay for nonstop internet access; an infinite array of information on the glass of his retina. The image flickered in his eye, then transformed into a page with a number of news sites listed down the middle. He flicked it to the top corner of the screen with a nonchalant move of the eye, and then waded through the other pages until he reached Rachael’s intoxicating face. He blinked her open.
“Today’s news, brought to you by Gorilla Industries–” said Rachael.
“Hold on,” he said. “I want to watch the Newslink edition, and for you to present it.”
“Certainly,” she replied. “Would you prefer the full 30-minutes or a shorter version?”
He wondered, for a moment, if she was real: a recording of a voice of a real person, or just another voice created by digital? It made him think of the original Rachael, from high school. They had kissed one day after school, on the big green oval where the students played sport. He still remembered the touch of her soft lips on his own; the overwhelming warmth; a moment of infinite beauty held for eternity where they stood, right in the centre of the ‘P’in the Paddington Foodssign, which had been permanently embossed onto the synthetic green oval.
He still remembered their lunches too, and the jingle that played on repeat in the school cafeteria: Lunches, with all a growing kid will need… Paddington Foods, that’s Paddington Foods… Lunches, for sustenance and fun. Lunches, with all a growing kid will need… including his first doses of the dexamphetamine-infused Pep-Me-Up pills that were obligatory in schools to help the children concentrate, and as an aid to the poorly paid teachers before they were unilaterally replaced by the Robotic Teacher System.
His Home Intelligence Unit was now sounding off the various news editions available to him, providing more information in hope of a response. He was barely listening, and instead stared at her face, enamoured of a beauty he’d modelled on the real Rachael from all those years ago. He had re-created her face as best he could through the personalisation settings and endless hours of modification, but she wasn’t quite as he remembered her, no matter what tones and colours he used. He’d flicked between hundreds of shades of brown for her hair and never quite matched it. Her voice was the closest he could find from the pre-set voice settings, but it wasn’t quite hers…
“I’ve actually only got time for the two-minute headlines tonight, Rachael,” he said, almost craving any hit of the news, which kept him connected to the world beyond the compound walls, and in a perpetual daze of information.
“The news headlines for Monday, September 4 – brought to you by Denseng, Stock City’s own genetic modifier. If you want your children to be the way you want them, call Denseng today. They can be as smart, beautiful or successful as you dare to dream–”
“Block ads,” he interrupted.
“Ecoterrorists have blown up a Food Inc. production plant, in a follow-up to the Genoma lab-factory attack of 11 days ago. It is believed to be part of an ongoing and coordinated strike on their developments in genetic-based food production.
“In more ecoterrorist-related news, a group of hard-line activists were arrested for their part in an attempt to stifle a mining operation at the Jagulah Lithium Mine. Three protestors were shot on site by Jagulah drones.
“A bomb has gone off in the Banking District. It is believed anti-globalists are behind the explosion. The number of casualties is not yet known. Further details will be available shortly. For ongoing updates on this unfolding crisis, or to purchase anti-blast protection for your home, please click the below link, or say ‘anti-globalist’ now.”
The news was interrupted by a loud beeping sound. For a moment, Johnson thought it was the compound’s emergency warning system – but it turned out that the beeping was directly in his ear. It was his in-built Maps system warning him of an approaching gate. “Oh Shit,” he said to the air as he looked around, slightly embarrassed by his own lack of awareness.
He scanned his wrist-chip barcode. The gate swung open. “Have a nice evening, Information Editor Johnson.”
The Eye-Tab came back on automatically and Rachael continued: “Google has announced plans for the next phase of its Artificial Intelligence Project, despite the last project being aborted after an off-shelf incident during testing.
“Zhongcom is continuing the development of its own artificial intelligence program in secret. There are concerns this may lead to a further escalation in tensions between Google and Zhongcom – the two technology giants locked in what many are describing as ‘the Brain Race’.Chief Executive Hope of the NABOJ Trade Bloc has requested urgent talks between the companies in order to further reduce the risk of an AI-induced singularity.
“In financial news, markets are up again, with the Future Options Exchange receiving a boost after the removal of a temporary bar on double-down futures. Our financial experts have suggested shorting on BMF trades as a result, and to continue selling anything nuclear, due to the ongoing fallout from the Bendowyne Disaster. The sustained global temperature increases have pushed the value of solar energy companies through the proverbial roof.”
Johnson zoned out. He’d never cared much for the world of finance. It was not like he could get into the share market anyway. He wouldn’t have the faintest idea where to begin, even if he did win one of the lotteries he entered each week. Shares were a plaything for the elites and the property owners, not for company serfs like him.
“Can you give me the sports,” he blurted out more loudly than necessary.
“In sports,” Rachael began, without missing a beat, “the Super International Fight Night Media Frenzy is on tomorrow night, with the fighters coming together from midday for the weigh-ins, and the customary trash talk brought to you by Ham-arm Roids. If you want arms as big as hams, use Ham-arm steroid injections and protein powders.”
“And football finals are heating up this weekend, with two elimination matches in the race for the Four Pillars Premiership. On Friday night, the Vitastrength Chargers take on the might of Amazon-Phizo, while on Saturday the Supplo Giants take on the Bitcoin Golds.”
Johnson listened to the rest of the football news, and then ended the broadcast with a double-blink. He rubbed his hands together, excited about watching the big match on Friday night with Conrad, while praying to the Economy to give them a Chargers victory.
The Information Editor is available now at all good bookstores and online. For more information, visit here.