Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Ark by Annabel Smith

The Ark, the new book from Annabel Smith (of #SixDegrees fame), tracks the inhabitants of an underground seed bunker, designed to protect the Earth's plant life from the environmental and political cataclysm that is taking place around it. Set in 2041, it begins with the inhabitants being told by a charismatic leader that they must enter ahead of schedule - only to find out that in doing so he's gone rogue.

The Ark is essentially an epistolary novel, with the story being told through snippets of communication like news articles, blogs, memos and emails. Smith has created the various mediums with aplomb, mostly paralleling things we have today but with care to replicate the essential features - for example, official corporate correspondence may be electronic but it still carries the same weight as an official letter. Of particular note is the distinction between dailemail (essentially the same as our email) gophers (more direct, encrypted communication) and the Headless Horseman (the most secure form of communication possible). It's not really specified how the Horseman differs technologically from the Gopher, but the talk around the Horseman's illegality is a nice hat-tip to how governments are starting to view technologies like TOR.

The first person we really get to know is Ava, who writes to her sister on the outside. The nature of the epistolary novel means we can't get directly inside anyone's head and have things explained to us, so everything has to come through these snippets. Since Ava's the first we hear from in any depth, she carries the burden of explaining a lot to the reader, with her sister acting as a proxy. There was one instance of the dreaded "As you know" which made me cringe a little, but it's mostly done very smoothly, and - without giving anything away - later in the chapter, absence becomes just as telling as presence.

One chapter is told from the perspective of Roscoe, the 15-year-old son of The Ark's Futurologist, Mia, primarily through his blog "Kaos Kronikles", and is presented in the chatspeak of 2041 (he's on Twitter if you want a taste). This device of trying to ape non-standard English is something I very rarely like (cf my review of Chuck Palahniuk's Pygmy). It is massively hard to pull off in a way that is convincing and thereby add any value through verisimilitude, so it's a high-risk manoeuvre (and with little reward - most teenagers speak like adults most of the time). At best it makes even simple things take longer to parse; at worst it comes across like when government anti-graffiti campaigns try to be hip. Smith does handle it much better than most, so in the end it doesn't grate as much as it could; but Roscoe's chapter was nonetheless a low point.

While The Ark takes place against the background of the apocalypse, at its core it's less about how society deals with disaster and more about how a small group of people deal with a charismatic leader who will stop at nothing to control them. It's very much a timeless human story, in that sense - that is where the bulk of the drama and intrigue comes from, and it really works well on that level. However, the technological and futuristic level is present as well, and is particularly worth examining given the nature of the project.

The Ark is not just a book, it's also an app and a website, and it's very much sold on the idea that the two parts go hand-in-hand, that it's an interactive experience. This is something I quite like - particularly with scifi. I love being able to delve into the background of the world that the author has built; how the technology works, how their society differs from ours, and so on. And it is good that Smith is trying to play with notions of how we consume books in the 21st century - something reflected by the fact that she got a government grant to help build the app.

Nonetheless, the book does deal with issues of how omnipresent surveillance is becoming, as technology becomes more and more central to our lives; of how large corporations are often quite amoral about the information they gather and what they do with it. A central part of the plot involves people being bound to a document they either barely read or didn't read at all, having "consented" when their partner or parent signed it. This echoes the current situation we have with the End User Licence Agreement (EULA) whereby people almost always click "I agree" without even a perfunctory glance at what they're agreeing to. Not even this formality is always adhered to - sometimes the EULA simply states "By using this product, you agree to..."

Faust 2.0 by xkcd
At the time of writing, The Ark app requires access to (among other things) your identity, location, photos, and the ability to make phonecalls. Most of these are required so you can do the various interactive things, like uploading your own content, but it's an all-or-nothing prospect; even if you don't want to upload anything, you still have to give the app access.

I don't suspect Smith or her team of anything underhanded here - this is just the way the app-making industry works in 2014. And yet many of the problems we're already seeing around privacy are caused precisely because we are so willing to give up these permissions, without a clear way of knowing exactly how they will be used - or any recourse if they change in the future. Much like the EULA, few people even bother reading an app's short summary before they click "Accept." This is a situation that will only get worse unless we start paying attention to it, but it is far from inevitable. App developers, and the Apples and Googles who create the environment they work in, certainly could build apps that don't require all these extra permissions - they just have no incentive to do so unless the public cares about it.

All of the information in The Ark's app is available on the website, which doesn't require any permissions unless you explicitly give them, so the privacy-conscious needn't miss out - but it is interesting that even a book that explores these issues is far from immune from perpetuating them.

The book opens with a passage from 2093 in which The Australian reports on the Ark's discovery by hikers, and the return of its inhabitants to society at large, decades after the story takes place. The rest of the book takes place in the first few years after the Ark is sealed, so while we know that the world outside the Ark must have survived, we hear nothing about it after the first few chapters. The story works perfectly well this way, and what keeps you hooked is undoubtedly what goes on inside the Ark - but it would be nice to get some info at the end on what happened on the outside. I read an advance copy of the book, and the app and website are still beta versions - the book isn't officially launched until September 19 - so maybe some of the website extras will ultimately give us some insight there.

The verdict? It's the first scifi book I've read in a while and as you can see it's certainly been a launching point for the issues it deals with. Both the format and the narrative are compelling enough to keep you glommed to the screen of your eReader, and Smith does an excellent job of managing the suspense. Despite a few aspects that fell flat, I really enjoyed it.

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