The past and the future as windows to the present

With these four novels, our intrepid quartet of authors dig into the past or speculate on the future in order to create insightful commentary on what we’re like as members of the human race. The best part is they do this while still entertaining. 

‘Hurdy Gurdy’ by Christopher Wilson

This latest from Christopher Wilson has a really interesting premise. It’s a picaresque about a lowly Brother Diggory of the Holy Order of Blessed Udo the Ugly, and its set in England during the 14th century Black Plague. It’s depicted as a time when a pestilence was engulfing the world, when superstition and old folk’s tales ruled, and what passed for science then was ignored or ridiculed. In other words, it’s very much like how things are today in our COVID world. It’s a comic novel, and I would venture to say that through humor and adventure, Wilson is also making some observations about the present.

But rather than sticking it to us as social commentary, Wilson turns this novel into a farce of entertainment and sharp comedy. The misadventures and situations that Diggory gets himself into had me smiling and chuckling to myself while reading the unfolding chapters. It’s like a new chapter to “The Canterbury Tales,” or a ribald take on doctoring and medicine in the 1350s. There are masterfully descriptive passages that bring to life the muck, the lack of hygiene standards, the spread of disease, and the plain ignorance of people when faced with something like a plague. 

‘Klara and the Sun’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

For his first novel released since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro decides to create a POV that while very humanistic, actually emanates from an Artificial Intelligence (AI). It’s somewhere in the near-future and, when the novel opens, Klara is just one of several Artificial Friends (AF) stocked in a retail store. She ruminates, seems to philosophize about her existence, while waiting to be picked out by one of the people who enter the store. At this juncture, Ishiguro is already playing with us, as we empathize with Klara, imbue her with sentiments and feelings even if she’s essentially a machine, albeit, an intelligent one.

Josie, a sickly child with severe health issues, returns time and again to the store. Rather than picking out the advanced models, Josie picks out Klara, and a bond is created. There’s a strong twist halfway through the narrative, which has us questioning the ethics of humans, and even making us ponder about who has more conscience and pathos—this AF or the people who surround her. And perhaps that’s precisely the point Ishiguro is making, about what of our humanity is getting lost as we speed down the road of technological progress. That the novel also works as a human drama about service and duty, while an AF is in the center of things, is part of Kazuo’s literary gifts. 

‘Point B’ by Drew Magary

With a strong, imaginative flourish, the central premise of this sci-fi teenage adventure is that in 2032, it’s a world where one company, PortSys, has developed technology known as PortPhones. It allows users to teleport to anywhere in the world, making car and even air travel obsolete. As a result, the environment has come back on track. But as with almost all technology, what should have been a boon for the world, can also be misused and abused by criminal elements. Sarah Huff was constantly being “stalked” by a stranger who would appear in her bedroom late at night, until she’s pushed to take her own life.

We follow younger sister Anna who enters an exclusive school and promptly falls in love with her roommate Lara—only the daughter of the family that owns PortSys. It’s discoveries that follow that imperil Anna’s life, and how, as a science nerd, she finds ways to survive and flourish that make up the action-packed pages of this novel. Even with the YA slant, this is sure-footed writing, and can be enjoyed by readers much older than the heroine at the center of this novel. There’s a fast pacing and memorable characters populating the pages here.

‘Zed’ by Joanna Kavenna

Technically, this would be classified in the sci-fi genre, with its cutting look at a future where data privacy has been voluntarily surrendered by so many. In this future version of the United Kingdom, a corporate entity known as Beetle holds sway, thanks to all the contracts it has with the government. CEO Guy Mattias is the de facto ruler of this world, his partnership and synergies with a Chinese company and its CEO translating to these two being the world’s most powerful duo. Even law enforcement is carried out by Beetle, with arrests being made for future crimes based on their almighty algorithm.

But what happens when cracks in the wall become evident? When the robots assigned to make arrests seem to glitch and fatally shoot the people they were supposed to bring to judgment? It’s a scenario where blaming human error and the Zed factor become the means to perpetuate the status quo and avoid prying reassessments of their government contracts. It’s immersion into this faux-utopia that “Zed” brings to the fore with a lot of semantic humor and what-if scenarios. Kavenna was feted as one of Granta’s Most Promising Authors in 2015, and “Zed” is her first foray into this genre—we can only be so thankful.