Before you reap that holiday haul of tablets, video game systems and virtual reality headsets, do spare a moment to consider the humble hardcover. If you can’t get enough tech, this week’s book club is for you; living in India, Japan and a global future, the heroes and heroines of these novels bravely hack their way through the techno-urban jungle (and yes, two of the books are available for eReader). The urban journey can be both fascinating and isolating; the private becomes public, the personal goes global and the intimate is infrastructure. Read on for robots, modernity and a million twinkling lights.
1. The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma by Ratika Kapur ($16): Renuka Sharma, a modern 37-year-old woman living in Delhi, is a walking contradiction; she broadcasts simplicity, but runs deep and complex internally; she claims to be traditional, but easily gets along in a modern, busy, bustling world. “I should say here,” she begins, “that I am not a cheap woman. I hail from a good family, a well-educated family, my father actually has a BSc in Botany, and I don’t talk to men without reason.”
However, when she meets Vineet, who works at a boutique hotel on the economically booming outskirts of the city, she embarks on a casual but deepening friendship that eventually becomes something more. No stranger to emotional labor, Renuka learns everything there is to know about Vineet’s life without being asked anything in return. “Actually, there is nothing I want to tell him, nothing I want to hear from him,” she confides in us, “and maybe this is odd, but the truth is that I am happy to just stand quietly next to him and look out of the window at the tops of the trees and buildings that pass by.”
In this unbalanced intimacy, we’re the only ones who know her secrets, and they are legion; she has a husband in Dubai, lives with her teenaged son and has nuanced and often wickedly irreverent observations about class, philosophy, technology and sexuality. In her job as a receptionist, Renuka tries to carve out a spot in the New Indian Dream that globalization has built; corporate jobs, gleaming chrome, beeping technology and sprawling malls. For all the rationalizing she can do about her traditional values, she realizes that the world is changing; how much will it change her, and how much will she push back?
2. Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto ($21): We go from India to Japan, where a young woman, Yoshie, is literally haunted by technology as she tries to find herself on the densely packed streets of Tokyo. Yoshie’s father is a famous musician, and both his fans and family are shocked when he apparently commits suicide in a pact with an anonymous woman (though Yoshie believes it was murder). A year later, Yoshie tries to move on by moving away; she takes up residence in the hip and bustling Shimokitazawa district, where you may live on top of your neighbors, but at least they’re friendly.
She can’t get away, though; her mother decides to move in, and she starts having nightmares that her father is looking for his phone, and that she’s trying to call him. “My depression after losing Dad wasn’t acute — the suffering was more like a gradual accumulation of body blows, Yoshie says. “I would be deeply sunken into it by the time I noticed, and then barely manage to lift my face to break the surface and come up for air.”
Banana Yoshimoto’s novel, originally published in Japanese in 2010, has been translated into English for the first time by Asa Yoneda. Yoshimoto sometimes draws comparisons to Haruki Murakami, but she’s a unique voice all her own; she’s won scores of literary prizes in Japan and Italy, and North America is no stranger to “Bananamania.” She draws beautiful, lyrical and surreal pictures of a young woman and neighborhood in transition, in a story that’s full of ghosts and grief, but also community and hope.
3. SP4RX by Wren McDonald ($19): SP4RX is a visual work for a visual world. Wren McDonald’s graphic novel tells the tale of a dystopian future where technology has taken over — well, taken over even more than it has already. The monolithic Structus Industries is famous for its new Elpis Program, seen as a veritable gift to humanity (“OMG! So inspirational!” crows the news anchor); it can be accessed for free and increases human efficiency through cybernetic modifications, allowing the lower class to re-compete for their vanishing jobs against the influx of machines. “Thanks to the Elpis Program, I can finally provide for my family again! I can work a 36-hour shift without breaks!” says a worker. Meet the brave new world; same as the old world.
If we’ve learned anything from free software, however, it’s that if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. Elpis is no exception, because it has one potentially nasty complication that you might not find in the user agreement; users can be controlled through the modifications, essentially becoming zombies for hire. The best way to fight zombification is with nonconformity; cue McDonald’s hero SP4RX, a contract hacker (or “bitnite”) and his best friend CL1PP3R, who get a gig to steal a program in beta that can take over Elpis. SP4RX’s successful theft turns out to be anything but simple when an enigmatic woman turns out to be another bitnite and jacks the program.
Filled with a healthy dose of sarcastic social commentary and trippy digital dream sequences, SP4RX asks whether the value of humanity can really be reduced to the efficiency of our contribution to the system. Take a moment to balance that new techno-gadget with those sorts of questions, and you’ll navigate our techno-urban jungle just fine.
What books press your buttons? Tag us in your next technological read @BritandCo.
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(Featured photo via Getty)