The future we’re heading toward, the future we have, is so stupid that characterizing it as such can feel beside the point. What can one say about Facebook’s metaverse, the privatized space race, or this trailer for crypto starring Matt Damon that doesn’t resort to cliché? Every “dystopian” spectacle of “late capitalism” seems to double as a commentary on its own existence. Which makes writing science fiction about the current moment difficult — not because people would rather read escapist fantasy than face the real world, but because the obvious tends to be quite cringe.
In Dave Eggers’s new novel The Every, or At Last A Sense of Order, or The Final Days of Free Will, or Limitless Choice is Killing the World, a sequel to The Circle, a social media tech conglomerate that’s basically Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook mashed together like a Frankenstein of bullshit, rules the world. You can glean almost everything else from the protracted title. They believe privacy is evil, that choices of any kind can be anticipated by an algorithm, and that morality can be induced by shame. The Every develops nearly every app, steals or at least buys out every good idea, and controls the general trajectory of society, all while promoting itself as an eco-friendly, highly inclusive, and all-around awesome company. The employees, known as Everyones, live on Treasure Island in San Francisco; they wear lycra bodysuits that shrinkwrap their cleavage and collectively reject any idea or activity that could be taken as even mildly offensive through a series of company-specific social networks which allow people to anonymously shame their coworkers in the name of communal betterment. The protagonist, Delaney, joins this circus of madness in order to destroy it from within.
All of this feels more than a little on-the-nose at first, especially given Eggers’s penchant for the meta: each chapter has an algorithmically-generated time estimate of how long it’ll take for you to read it; he mentions the movie adaptation of The Circle outright, all but explicitly names real-life companies like Amazon (“an ecommerce behemoth named after a South American jungle”), and includes a character whose lines of dialogue, mostly illustrated in an epistolary fashion, read like a disgruntled boomer railing against modernity.
Eggers himself is, famously, averse to technology. He has no smartphone or social media presence and works on a fishing boat in the San Francisco Bay that has “no wifi going in or out and no possibility of a signal.” Thing is, I get it and he’s right. The self-seriousness might be a little irritating, but he quashes the eyerolls by being consistent, prescient, and, crucially, funny. The lack of subtlety that runs throughout the novel works because his subjects demand a heavy hand. Eschewing benumbed irony about our “hellscape,” he gives it to you straight — his unyielding earnestness matches the urgency of his message.
Egger’s world, which looks a lot like our own, is an exploitative one, partly because it’s driven by convenience. One popular conception of the future, seen in Back to the Future Part II (and Spy Kids), is that machines will be able to deliver or instantly create anything we want, from food to toys, that we will all be able to benefit from this technology equally. But someone has to manufacture and maintain that technology. Menial labor is intentionally peripheral to the concerns of the Every and the glimpses we get of drivers or cooks paints a dire picture of who gets to enjoy the leisure that technology supposedly affords Everyone (many times while reading the novel, I thought of Tyler Durden kidnapping the LA Chief of Police in Fight Club, saying “We cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep. Do not fuck with us!”).
Mae, the protagonist of The Circle, played with a convincing lack of personality by Emma Watson in the film adaptation, was a doe-eyed normcore girl who just wanted to fit in (she is now the CEO of The Every). By contrast, Delaney endeavors to shake things up at the Every with a rebellious spirit and a healthy degree of cynicism. Growing up, she witnessed first-hand the destructive effects of the company’s monopolizing power when a Whole Foods-esque grocery chain owned by The Every usurped her parents’ local mom-and-pop. But despite her initial verve, she’s worn down immediately by the all-consuming corporate culture of the Every which is designed to nip any resistance among its employees in the bud. The company is, say it with me now, too big to fail.
Every single action made by an Every user is tracked and rated, from one’s Personal Carbon Impact to one’s sexual satisfaction with a partner to one’s vocabulary (Delaney learns that this particular algorithm only tracks the frequency with which a given person uses certain words, so those who are urged by the Every to diversify their speech automatically gain points for simply saying a new word, regardless of whether or not it makes any grammatical sense). All of this information is, per the Every ethos, completely open to the public, with anyone who chooses to keep any portion of their life private deemed suspicious at best. And because The Every is all about improving people, there’s a surveillance program integrated into every on-campus device, building, and mode of transportation to reinforce a sense of constant inadequacy. You can always be exercising more, practicing that new language just a little longer, checking in with your friends more sincerely, working longer, being more completely you.
The Every’s ideal world is one that maximizes productivity while avoiding any kind of social friction. As such, its systems function on immediacy, physical distance (Eggers wrote the book before COVID, but references to a series of pandemics run throughout the novel), and personal quantification (countless apps determine a user’s honesty, happiness, and even ability to love). A paranoia hums beneath every interaction on the Every’s campus. In the name of transparency, everyone is watching each other, looking for the next faux pas or out-of-context transgression. It all adds up to a suffocating environment of pervasive moral posturing and false humility that anyone who frequents Instagram or Twitter can recognize. (In one chapter, Delaney and Wes game The Every’s transparency algorithm by suggesting bananas shouldn’t be allowed on campus because they’re not sustainably-sourced. Almost immediately, Everyone agrees, going so far as to outlaw tropical fruits as a whole. They do this in the span of an hour.)
Eight years ago, Eggers’s first foray into paranoid science fiction was roundly mocked. A review from Wired described The Circle as “entirely convinced of its righteousness, unafraid to use straw man arguments to ‘prove’ its points, and completely disinterested in dialogue when polemic is easier.” Kirkus Reviews called it “scolding.” (Reception to the unfortunate film adaptation was even cooler.) But The Every’s lack of subtlety works better than it did for its predecessor. It has all the quick-paced pleasure and digressive quality of a cartoon with the conviction of a morality play. Is it a little much? Yes. Is it self-satisfied? Sure. Does Eggers know what Snapchat is? Probably not. But while he may be painting in broad strokes, he gets the gist. The Every may be at times simplistic or hectoring or stupid, but so is our future. And the people dragging us deeper into it are so unoriginal, so transparent in their motives, that you don’t need much to guess how it’s all going to turn out.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.