This month the book club I started with some pals from work discussed H(A)PPY, the latest novel from Nicola Barker. It’s set in a post-post-apocalyptic world, among a people known as The Young. This world and The Young are never really described, physically. Bodies are rarely mentioned. I read this as suggesting that The Young are consciousnesses living in silicon, though this is never sad outright (and other members of the book club disagreed). The Young experience their thoughts, and everybody else’s and their reactions and emotions via The Stream, an always-present communication network, whose modes of information beyond text are cleverly communicated in the book by unusual typography1. The Young’s society is utopian; they are free from need and police themselves to free from desire, the root of unhappiness. The Young are happy. But Mira A is h(a)ppy.
What is the story? Well it doesn’t have one in a traditional sense. The Young shun narrative, as narrative implies both History and Expectations, which disturb their utopia. Mira A tries and fails to shun narrative, and Barker is doing the same thing in a clever metatextual game that got the better of me and my friends. What narrative that remains was too abstract to engage me in any meaningful way and I grew bored after a hundred pages or so—the book club all agreed it would have made a better novella or long short story. (Apart from one person who thought its best format would be choose-your-own-adventure, a view I, inexplicably, didn’t get her to expand on.)
But I still really recommend this book. The core conceit of using coloured text, different typefaces, walls of words and so on to represent as-yet-unimagined modes of communication is extremely effective. The inability to communicate sarcasm and other intonation-dependent modifiers in electronic text had hamstrung internet chat for decades. That problem is now effectively solved with emoji. What’s more, emoji have expanded our communication (in some directions) past the options available to us in speech. If we all lived in the machine, it seems unlikely we would communicate with text. If one’s emotions are a (known) signal pattern, then sharing an emotion is as easy as sharing a thought. If others’ thoughts are experienced directly, why would we experience them in words? If we have new bodies, or no bodies at all, why would we replicate the common human senses? H(A)PPY does a very good job of imitating a world without language as we know it by such tricks as marking ‘dangerous’ emotion-full words in various hues of red and purple.
The future imagined in H(A)PPY is a long way off, if it’s even possible (let alone probable). But still I think H(A)PPY sets a good example for contemporary fiction about today’s world. I rarely read anything that comes close to effectively describing what it’s like to live and work as I do with my brain always half in my computer. I’m not a cyborg by a strict definition—I sit at a desk with clear air between me and the screen—but in a realer sense we’re all cyborgs now. There are thousands of derivative novels about living in a fantasy cyberspace but nobody seems to have the language to describe the way I feel when I CTRL-C something and don’t immediately CTRL-V it, how minutes later I feel as though I’m holding something weightless that’s seeking its proper place.
The variously-coloured words and bizarre runes that fill the book go along way to explaining its high price-tag and are absolutely essential for a fidelitous reading: don’t buy the kindle version. ↩︎