Pros: Clever set up, interesting characters, timely topics
Possible Cons: Video game style climax and villain-tells-all scene. Roving point of view and a fair bit of “tell.”
The Echo Chamber is in part a tale of tech-corporate malfeasance, involving a rogue AI, a blender and ruthless Silicon Valley executives who build a social media “echo chamber.” This hypnotic virtual reality seduces most of the world’s population, trapping people in their own memories or with a personalized preconceived-worldview-comfort-zone. This shadow world is a paradise for pundits who spew, to put it politely, “non-evidence-based ideas about people and the environment.” The company dodges moral responsibility, citing freedom of access, acceptance and inclusion. Moral blinders allow massive corporate expansion with “no constraints, no thought of consequences.”
Catalina, a crusty, anti-social woman, relates much of the first act. The author took a risk leading with this character. She’s hard to like, but potentially relate-able, especially for the squished-against-the-glass-ceiling crowd. A corporate takeover, thanks to a blender and a rogue AI, allow unsavory executives to pursue the virtual reality “echo chamber” unfettered. The blender plot element might stretch credibility, but flashback to discussions about the Thermix, the glaze on converts’ eyes, and it’ll all seem plausible.
Naturally, the consequences of the “echo chamber” are severe, so severe that reversing the erosion of society requires a time travel maneuver. The necessity of and mechanism for time travel felt valid, as far as these things go, though most of us accept the thinnest of excuses: a bent molecules, a foreign computer server, a genetic mutation, a malfunctioning ATM machine…
Point of view shifts between several character, sometimes within a single chapter. The love interest/secondary lead, Charlotte is well drawn, a perfectionist achiever, jaded by Hollywood and fame, still reacting to family of origin dysfunction. Like Catalina, she’s not entirely likable but fights to regain connection, courage and compassion. Mike, the story’s moral compass, reads rather bland, but for good reason. He’s a nice guy and a multiple-life, time traveler. As we all know, having read The First 15 Lives of Harry August, time travel might produce a “crafted demeanor” and/or a certain ennui. Cumulative loss rests heavy on the time traveler’s shoulders.
This novel explores a variety of the moment questions. Who will program the AI? Should we allow corporations to govern? Where do we draw the line between freedom of speech and hate speech? When should we abandon self-interest and take action? And scenario isn’t far-fetched, given how we value the economy over society, given the power we’ve ceded to corporations, given the political climate of the last few years. I’ve read two reverse-the-dystopia-via-time-travel-plots this year: The Echo Chamber and William Gibson’s The Peripheral. My novel, Harmony Lost, touches on similar themes. Should I be getting nervous?
I enjoyed the prose, however, the book’s not perfect. In some sections, point of view roves around. I noticed the shifts but didn’t become confused. I assumed the POV shifts were intentional stylistic choices. The prose style includes a fair bit of “tell,” including told emotion and motivation, a feature I also interpreted as a stylistic choice.
Worse sins lay in the plot. In particular, one plot escalation depends on a character doing something moronic, creating a suspension of disbelief speed-bump. Additionally, one scene includes awkward bad-guy-telling-why-he-did-it dialog. And the action packed third scene, structured like a video game, felt tacked on. I understand why these elements are present; they provide the requisite structure. And many readers will experience these elements as the best part of the story. But I especially enjoyed the clever situation, the social, technological and political insights, and the characterizations.