In her satirical dystopian sci-fi novel Zed, writer Joanna Kavenna kills a guy with a robot. Or did she? With this novel newly available in paperback — and still available for Kindle, audiobook, and hardcover — I spoke with her via email about what inspired and influenced this story…and never once made a joke about Zed being dead, baby.
Photo Credit: © Alexander Michaelis
To begin, what is Zed about, and when and where does it take place?
“One corporation has made a perfect world based on a perfect algorithm. Now, what to do with all these messy people?
Lionel Bigman is dead. Murdered by a robot. Guy Matthias, the philandering founder and CEO of the mega-corporation Beetle, insists it was human error. But was it? Either the predictive algorithms of Beetle’s supposedly omniscient ‘lifechain’ don’t work, or, they’ve been hacked. Both scenarios are impossible to imagine and signal the end of Beetle’s technotopia and life as we know it.”
I can never summarize my books, but that was written by my brilliant Doubleday editor Rob Bloom…
What inspired this story, and how, if at all, did the story change as you wrote it?
So many aspects of our weird reality inspired me…I was interested in our super-advanced predictive algorithms and data modelling systems and how so often they fail to predict things that really matter. I wanted to write about life in a surveillance technotopia, with all our wearables and A.I. pals and “benign regulatory environments” that apparently watch us for our own good. Why is this interventionist reality watching us so intently, if it only wants to be our friend? And what does it know about us, really? Does all that data truly portray our mysterious and complex lives?
One big thing that changed as I wrote was that the idea of “Zed” emerged. Zed is the term that my mega-corporation Beetle uses to categorize events they have failed to predict. So it’s a category indicating uncertainty and the unknown. At first Beetle claims that “Zed events” are very rare. But “Zed events” keep happening, and soon Beetle has to categorize almost everything as a “Zed event.” Then they lose control entirely… That all suddenly appeared as I wrote, so I guess the emergence of Zed was itself a Zed event.
It sounds as if Zed may have some socio-political elements to it. Does it?
I had a phone call just now, literally as I was typing this, someone calling about my boiler. It’s broken, alas. I said to the man “How are you?” And he said “Oh, I’m living the dream. Absolutely living the dream.” I laughed, and then he added: “At least, I’m living someone’s dream, not my own, I’m being dreamed.” I thought that was great and it’s exactly what I was trying to write about. What is it like to live in a reality that feels like a dream? Can you have authentic experience when you don’t know what is real and what is unreal? Can you have freedom and free will?
It’s an ancient philosophical question that runs through millennia, and now we have the technologies of our uneasy present and all the online fakes and bots and trolls and VR and the way we exist online as avatars in shining tiles, in a Cubist cyber-landscape. Also isn’t it odd, isn’t reality so very odd, that here I am just about to write to you about dreams and reality and then a stranger phones up and makes a deeply ironic joke about dreams and reality!? That’s exactly it, the deep irony of living in a reality that feels totally unreal and that is nonetheless the only reality we have. And the moments of real contact, nonetheless, all the ironic jokes and signs and signals to each other — revealing that we all know this is very weird.
So I wanted to put some unreal people, i.e. fictional characters in a fake world (a novel) into various fictional fake realities, to examine all this further.
Zed has been called a dystopian sci-fi story, a thriller, and a satire. How do you describe it, genre-wise?
It has satirical aspects, yes. It’s set in a very near future or a slightly exaggerated version of our present, so roughly dystopian. I don’t think of it as a thriller, though my bank probably wishes it was… If I described it myself I might say it is also an absurdist quest.
In terms of the satirical aspects of Zed, what writers do you see as having the biggest influence on this story?
I think the biggest influence was those absurdist writers who satirize society by magnifying all its supposed norms, until the norms are defamiliarized. Gogol, Babel, Daniil Kharms, Ithell Colquhoun, Leonora Carrington, Pynchon, and writers who do that with sci-fi too i.e. Philip K Dick and Stanislaw Lem. Also satirical-panopticon stories: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Aside from those people, are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on Zed but not on any of your previous novels?
Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Aleph.” The narrator finds a beautiful glistening sphere in his friend’s basement, and when he looks into it he sees all reality, everything that has ever existed. It’s amazing but also the narrator realizes he will be bored forever because nothing will surprise him ever again.
That question of whether you want to be surprised by life or not is interesting on many levels.
How about non-literary influences; was Zed influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Because the whole “a robot killed someone when robots shouldn’t be able to kill someone” aspect reminds me of that movie I, Robot.
A few years ago I went to a really great exhibition at the London Barbican called “Into The Unknown,” curated by Patrick Gyger. I sat there surrounded by MC Escher’s art, with the film Sunspring playing on a loop. Sunspring was “written” by an A.I. that was “fed” lots of sci-fi and “created” a script. The resulting film makes literally no sense whatsoever. But it’s also poignant. It really feels as if the A.I. is trying to tell us something. That made me think a lot about what human reality looks like, seen through the mind of A.I. In Zed, there are passages written in the style of A.I. because I thought if A.I. can write like a human then it might be fun to try to write like A.I. writing like a human.
Now, Zed was originally released in hardcover last January, and is just now coming out in paperback. Aside from any typos that your mom might’ve noticed and pointed out, is there anything else different about this edition?
No changes this time.
Dystopian sci-fi stories are sometimes self-contained and sometimes part of larger sagas. What is Zed?
I’ve just published a short story in Granta called “The Perfect Companion,” which is set in the Zed-verse (as it were) but with new characters. [Click here to read it.] I might well write something else.
Earlier I asked if Zed had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. I know it’s early, but has there been any interest yet in adapting it into a movie, show, or game?
Nothing yet confirmed…but it would be fun to see it as a TV series. Like The Man In The High Castle. Or The Crown but with robots.
I’d also like to step into a VR version of one of my novels. Just once. Unless it’s like being trapped in your own Id, which could be terrifically embarrassing…
Finally, if someone enjoys Zed, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
I think if they’ve read one of mine they should try someone else next. What about Enrique Vila-Matas? He’s a fantastic author. Read Never Any End To Paris. Or anything else.