In their tales of terror, imagination and innovation, how do bacteria describe humans? Do the microbial authors of the world’s smallest bestsellers see us as benevolent super-beings, waiting to bestow upon them their fondest wishes after some 17 hours of existence? Or are we mindless, bactericidal maniacs, bent only on destruction? Perspective and narration are, of course, human attributes, on admirable display in Rob Reid’s After On. Alas, in Reid’s novel, we’re the bacteria.
Reid’s narrator is introduced on page one, daring us to finish, which is quite a dare given that the book is more than 500 pages. Soon enough, the bordering-on-overbearing stream-of-consciousness teleports into what feels a bit like the omniscient third person, for, at least, some portions of the novel. That omniscience is not without import, but make no mistake, even a well-muscled Deity is going to have to queue up in After On. Reid stuffs his novel with all the hilarious, wildly-imaginative, weirdness that unfolds in the Silicon Valley business landscape and then extrapolates the eternal tomorrow. The result is a novel so full of propulsive fun that you’ll be well into the future it describes before you’re able to put down the book.
Reid’s story unfolds in the white-hot world of Silicon Valley start-ups, a sort of savanna-survival stand-in for today’s brilliant (and almost brilliant) minds. Mitchell Prentice is hoping to keep his start-up, Giftish.ly afloat long enough for it to be subsumed by Phlutter, a social-networking/hookup app. His story is punctuated, no interrupted, by what appears to be a very badly-written (but thought provoking) science fiction novel. That story is interrupted by the story of Jepson, the founder of Phlutter. Intertwined are rants from bloggers (NETGRRRL!), insane and amazing and Amazon review posts, technical papers, and even government documents. Reid wrangles much of our modern world into a dizzying thriller with serious philosophic implications.
The thorny question here is how do we ascertain the arrival of artificial super-intelligence, and what do we say to it… or rather, what does it do to us? Reid explores his answers in a novel that is at once page-turning and mind-boggling. Happily, the AI thought-experimentation is matched by a witty and a very irreverent dismantling of Silicon Valley morals and mores. All this works because Reid gives us a batch of characters we come to love, even as they blithely contemplate and bring about irrevocable change.
Reid’s thoughts and plots regarding artificial intelligence are best discovered by the reader, but he manages to astonish us even as he keeps his and our feet on terra firma. And for all the futures he imagines, Reid is equally great at nailing the present. More than a few scenes reveal what is happening at this moment in a manner that’s quite funny, but equally insightful. After On is fun to read taken simply as a Silicon Valley satire, even though it is much, much more.
With more parts than you might be able to count, moving at a clip that feels as fast as life, After On bears a remarkable resemblance to the great, capacious novels of their day, say, Dickens, or Melville. It’s a blast to read even as you realize that said blast may be subtly rearranging your mind. You’ll listen to yourself think and wonder just whose voice you are hearing. And by the time you do, that may be a very good question indeed.
Reid himself is chock-a-block with good questions; one need only give a listen to his amazing podcasts. Unsurprisingly, he’s equally awash in good answers, obvious as you listen to our conversation about his book, which is currently possible using
today’s cutting-edge technology moldy technology from nearly two decades ago by following this link and downloading the file. It is possible that downloading this file will tip the scales, so to speak, after (on) which your podcast playback application might have a mind of its own. Blame Reid for that, he brings all the intelligence, none of it artificial, all of it even shockingly mature. I hope you’ve been kind to that podcast app!