“Who hasn’t, in the middle of a long, dull journey, wished they could remove themselves from its boredom? Who hasn’t thought... this whole ordeal would be much better if I simply wasn’t present?”
Step-Stone, one of several sinister corporations that populate Model Citizens, Daniel Shand’s witty, scabrous satire of fin de creation capitalism, has the solution – the closest thing, they say, to teleportation. After self-sedating in the comfort of their own homes, travellers are picked up by a Step-Stone driver and loaded onto a van, where they remain unconscious for the duration of their journey, only waking in their hotel room. In case you’re concerned about them taking advantage (“they’d have to be saints not to consider it”), drivers are administered anti-arousal medicine to guarantee a molestation-free trip; a panel in the storage compartment where passengers are stacked reads: “IN RARE EVENT OF WAKING MID-TRANSPORT PLEASE DO NOT SCREAM OR CLAW.”
Shand’s novel, his third, is set in Edinburgh in a not-too-distant future. We’re some way further down our current, calamitous path: every day is a scorcher, and “shorts are now an accepted part of formalwear”. It’s not only travellers who seek a workaround for the ordeal. The major innovation of the times, and the novel’s primary conceit, is “junioring”, which is to say, cloning. A Junior of yourself is the latest must-have accessory; pre-programmed with your memories, he or she will take over not only the drudgery of everyday life, but the social aspects too. After going to work and doing your job, he will go to the pub and socialise with your friends, or more likely your friends’ juniors; you can log on, if you want, and watch the action unfold through his eyes.
What do the owners (“seniors”) do with all their new-found freedom? Alistair, the novel’s sad-sack hero, mostly stays home and immerses himself in “the field”, a kind of Web 4.0 that doubles as a power grid. Here he watches “streams” and tends to his stats, the online rankings that more than anything else determine a person’s standing and significance in the world. (“If you get high on prestige, you might end up with a stream of your own.”)
Not everybody is convinced this is a constructive use of time. Alistair’s girlfriend, Caitlin, has decided she’s had enough, and leaves him to pursue her career analysing user experience in galleries: “How to tell what the best things were? That was easy: the best things were the ones with the most people looking at them.”
They are devoted to the overthrow of the system and the reinstatement of the good old days, best represented, as they see it, by the year 1997
Taking a harder line are the 97ers. Something between a squat and a cult, they are devoted to the overthrow of the system and the reinstatement of the good old days, best represented, as they see it, by the year 1997. Members take their names from the icons of the 1990s. The leader styles himself Hirst; we also meet Albarn, Shearer, van Outen, and, of course, Dolly, as in the sheep, who is central to the gang’s plot to kidnap Alistair’s clone, believing him to have incriminating information about Kim Larson, inventor of Junioring and the field.
The cloned self as ultimate consumer product is a compelling idea, and though the ramifications aren’t fully explored here (how would the economics of cloning actually work? Who would genuinely want to live with their own clone?) Shand has such fun with it that the reader gets carried along. He’s good on the absurdities of capitalism – a bravura sequence tracks Alistair’s campaign to justify to himself the purchase of a new widescreen TV – and on the conservatism that comes with a life lived online.
Any novel that features a road-trip involving the hero, his clone, and his father's clone's ghost has to be admired
Everything is spun, everything is premeditated, and everybody is complicit, weighing up the effect on their stats before expressing an opinion: “Mostly, folk tested the waters, hedging their bets... You couldn’t go too far in the early hours of something newsworthy in case your statement ended up going against the eventual grain.” The Juniors, with their childlike devotion to their Seniors, soon come to seem more alive than the owners themselves, lost in the Uncanny Valley.
At its best delivering satirical vignettes of small lives amid the murk of Edinburgh, the novel stalls in the latter stages when Alistair heads west to confront the evil billionaire, Larson. Lessons are learned, past traumas addressed, but while the plot strands are dutifully tied up, the brio and black humour that graced the first part is missing. At the same time, any novel that features a road-trip involving the hero, his clone, and his father’s clone’s ghost has to be admired; and never has the music of D:Ream been put to such poignant use. “Things can only get better, they’d sung back then,” thinks disenchanted Hirst in the closing pages. “But it was b***ocks.”