June 2, 2016

Book Review: Cumulus

Cumulus is a new novel from Eliot Peper, set in an near-future Bay Area remade by severe economic inequality, ubiquitous surveillance and consolidation of corporate power. While it works better as a commentary than as a novel, the dystopia it presents is a plausible evolution of current economic and social trends and worth a read by fans of the genre, or anyone interested in where another decade or so might take us.

The namesake of the book, the Cumulus corporation, is a vast AI-powered information aggregator that has embedded itself into every aspect of digital life. Cumulus has absorbed many other companies to add to its growing collective, including concepts, if not names, that will be familiar: Fleet, a driverless future Uber, internet provider Bandwidth, cloud storage service Backend, and mercenary service Security amongst others. Cumulus sucks in staggering amounts of real-time data from every device, service, media platform and subsidiary, weaving a complex, intricate and invasive intelligence portrait of anyone connected. Think Facebook listening to you on your phone microphone and take it to its most disturbing possible conclusion.

Concentration of power and computing into a corporate surveillance state has helped crystallize economic stratification into two distinct classes: much of San Francisco and various affluent enclaves of the East Bay have become Green Zones, where knowledge workers live and work in comfort and luxury, and anyone without the proper pass is liable to be ejected violently by Security. The rest of the population lives outside in the Slums, the crumbling remains of everywhere else, where they scrape by on gig jobs or whatever else they can find. The flow of tax money has been reduced to a trickle, leaving governments and even basic public services institutions barely functional if not completely absent.

The Story

Peper injects three main characters into this world: Huian, the driven CEO of Cumulus, steering the ever-increasing growth and reach of her company even as her marriage dissolves; Graham, an ex-CIA field agent who tired of government service and came to San Francisco to run his own kind of intelligence operations; and Lilly, an anachronistic film photographer, scraping by as a freelancer doing jobs for Greenies while living in the Oakland slums, dreaming and saving for a day where she can afford a trip out of the country. A failed acquisition attempt and a threatening lawsuit lead Huian to give Graham the go-ahead to ‘fix’ them, just as a bad review from a job pushes Lilly to risk a trespass into the Green Zone to find a good vantage point to take some photos and clear her head.

As a novel, Cumulus hooked me with its premise but left me wanting more at the end. It’s a very short read, just over two hundred printed pages which makes it brief enough to finish in an afternoon. This felt like a missed opportunity, as there are so many aspects of the world that beg for some more exposition or history. Character development is also uneven: Lilly has a solid backstory and is a sound protagonist, but Huian and Graham felt more two-dimensional. Huian works as a cold, calculating mind behind a classic dystopian mega-corporation, but the lack of depth made some of her evolution later in the book feel forced, either betraying an incongruous amount of naivete on her part, or a rushed and convenient turn so as to wrap the novel.

Graham is sickly fascinating, the product of a multi-generational family of intelligence operatives who is representative of the worst we’ve come to expect from that world. Unfortunately, his motivations are difficult to discern, even through the end, and he seemed to be more of an archetype than a fleshed-out person. Jarringly, at some points it feels that the characters, Graham in particular, cross over into being mouthpieces for Peper’s commentary on his own world. These insights are appropriate, but feel forced into the characters rather than the product of their own development and discoveries.

Technically speaking, little in Cumulus seems far-fetched, which makes the suspension of disbelief a minor one. Every aspect of the technology – the connectivity, AI, integration of untold streams of data – seem just slightly out of reach today, attainable with just slightly better models, a little more bandwidth or a few years more time to develop them. It’s the slick, instant and hyper-perfected version of what the intelligence community has been building silently for over a decade, wielded for better and worse by a corporation instead of spooks. And while I found the technique Graham used to evade being caught by his own network ripe for obvious discovery, it also struck me as the type of hubristic oversight a near-omniscient corporate overlord could make.

The Future

Like the best of dystopias, the world of Cumulus isn’t too difficult to imagine growing out of our own. Technology aside, Green Zones and Slums sometimes feel only a few short years away without a meaningful course correction that has yet to appear. Today, no one will toss you out of San Francisco for lack of a permit, but most anyone not involved in tech or already well-off would be unable to move in and live there today. BART isn’t the complete disaster it becomes in Cumulus, but it has clearly suffered like others across the country under our pathological lack of interest in developing or maintaining public transit. And general dissatisfaction with the police amidst rising property crime, combined with ineffective leadership from the local government seem to be ideal precursors to the wider rollout of private security forces in areas that can afford them.

In many ways Cumulus reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s masterfully beautiful and sad apocalyptic novel Oryx and Crake, which imagined a similar future. The talented and gifted were kept safe in their intellectual playground compounds by dutiful CorpSeCorps forces, the rest of the population languishing in the plebelands: large, lawless zones of violence and decay containing the rest of the human population, or whatever was left of it, as few in the compounds where much of the story take place seem to actually know or care. Atwood presents the different and much worse fate of the world right at the start of the novel, spinning the tale backwards, and it’s more of a nightmare of insanity and genetic engineering than a surveillance state. But the core of stratification followed by physical separation is the same.

At one point in the book, Huian speaks of “optimizing” society such that the violence that erupts later would no longer be necessary, although much of that seems to be her own delusion, given that the optimizations presented thus far have resulted in some huge percentage of the population simply not being needed for, well, pretty much anything. They don’t fit in the small but productive community of thinkers and builders, and they aren’t required as consumers for anything they produce, so they’re simply ejected from the economy and left to fend for themselves.

That’s the most disturbing part of all – not that our future highways will be swarms of self-driving Fleets, that AI could stitch together aspects of our digital lives in ways both amazing and terrifying, or that private enterprise would replace the rotting appendages of an ever-less effective government – but that it will be done in a way totally devoid of compassion or appreciation of human consequences. It’s not one big optimization that suddenly cuts off a chunk of the population, but a million small ones, often made by smart, driven, well-intentioned disruptors that are genuinely working for a brighter and better future. It’s too easy to not see, or pass off as another’s problem, the more difficult and uncomfortable effects of them. As a species, we seem to have significant difficulty even perceiving, much less managing the karmically complex changes we’re increasingly capable of producing.

For me, the most difficult and rewarding part of reading Cumulus was looking for myself in the mirror it holds up: after all, I’d be somewhere in the San Francisco Green Zone, hacking away at those schools of Fleets as they swarm about the ancient, crumbling highways built in an America of a different age. It’s not that the vision of highways full of self-driving vehicles is wrong: on the contrary, ending the era of individual automobiles would be a powerful legacy for my generation. We just need to be wary of the optimizations of our own lives, careers and successes that align all too easily with those that scrub out whole classes of people from our economic and social calculus, leaving them to fend for themselves in the slums, the plebelands, or whatever else we might call them someday.