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Introduction to The Red Men

red menGollancz is delighted to be bringing THE RED MEN, the debut novel by Matthew De Abaitua, to ebook for the first time. Shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award, and praised by the likes of Will Self, it’s a chilling depiction of our possible future. A short film based on the opening chapter, starring Tom Hollander, produced by WARP films and directed by Shynola, is released next week. DR EASY will be shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and then released on Vimeo and film4.com on the 21st June.

Here, Matthew (@MDeabaitua) tells us a little about the experience of preparing THE RED MEN for life in eBook…

 THE RED MEN is released in eBook today, Thursday 13th June.

 

The Red Men is inspired by work. What we used to call ‘white collar work’ but which we now call service sector or media or digital; or, invariably, some tedious amalgam of all three.

The novum or new thing of the novel is simple: what if you could download yourself into a digital reality, and this other self – your red man – could do all your work for you.

Not likely is it?

Downloading consciousness is fraught enough.

But a future in which you don’t to have work?

Impossible.

In the novel, both the red men and their executives work with the technology until it drives them all insane or evil, or both.

In this regard, The Red Men is a highly prescient work of social realism.

I wrote the novel to be disturbing, comic, and propelled by the kind of plot that science fiction excels at. It was entirely ignored on publication but has since gained a certain cultural traction.

Why?

It’s not enough that science fiction writers predict the technology of the future.

We should also predict the psychopathology of the future. That is, in the wake of JG Ballard, chart the splatter pattern of the human psyche upon the screen of an accelerating modernity.

One rule I had with The Red Men was that all new technology should come with a business plan. You can invent things for the good of humanity all you want. But they won’t make it to market. Every robot has to pay its way. Every laser pistol requires an annual upgrade and an eighteen month contract. Phillip K Dick knew this. Some of his heroes have to put a dollar in the door if they want to leave the house.

The future of Star Trek, of Kirk and Spock pursuing a profession out of an ideal, is lost. We live in the aftermath of the total victory of capitalism. The only questions are: how bad will it get? And how it funny will it be?

When I devised The Red Men, I was working in a dark basement with barred windows, using a broken technology that had been ordered up by marketing executives who saw, in the internet, a revolutionary new way to achieve the hubris they so richly deserved. We were running a website. We needed a content management system. The executives flew to San Francisco, wined and dined, and spent the thick end of a million quid on a content management system that, in the words of its creators, ‘wasn’t designed to handle the English language’.  It was a system only in the sense that removing someone’s fingernails from left to right before you begin on their toenails can be considered a system.

My colleagues were all writers too. At lunch time, they would beat up their screens.

It was this experience that inspired The Red Men.

Particularly the soft, passive robots that inhabit the novel, the Dr Easys.

Watching my colleague attempt to wring the neck of his enormous monitor I realised three things:

 

1) In the future, technology will be softer, more yielding and accommodating to the human scale so that we will not hurt our toes when we attempt to kick its face off.

2) The rise of technology will produce counter-revolutions. Specifically, a youth culture which yearns for a pre-screen age. We will be nostalgic for times we never experienced. For the novel, I plumped for a revival of the Blitz spirit; in this, the anti-digital, ‘rationing chic’ in The Red Men so accurately anticipates the austerity chic of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ that I am certain that someone somewhere owes me money.

3) There is nothing inherently liberating about networks and technology. That is mere propaganda. Only power is liberating.

 

There were other influences upon The Red Men. My first encounter with the notion of downloading consciousness into a digital realm was through the utopian ideals of Ray Kurzweil. His prospect of a digital heaven made possible by the physics of immortality reminded me of Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time, in which a decadent elite of hippies and arty types use up the remaining energy in the universe to warp reality so that they can throw really amazing parties. Moorcock’s original trilogy was published in the early seventies and captures the hedonistic aftermath of the cultural revolution of the sixties. I started writing The Red Men in the autumn of 2002. A very different time, a very different vantage point. An executive elite would preside over my ‘digital heaven’. The arty types would be employed solely so that the executives could enjoy torturing them, an insight so prescient it is spooky.

The red men are the simulated selves of executives. I devised a business model in which these simulations crunch data and find patterns particular to you. They think at light speed to give you what you need and want. Think of Google’s algorithms personalised by their exposure to you and your desire. In return, the executive’s employer pays a subscription to Monad, the creators of The Red Men.

This business plan is yet another example of the novel’s astonishing prescience. These days, you can’t eavesdrop in a cafe or pub in east London without overhearing an equally deranged attempt to monetise technology.

My intent was not to sketch out the new indignities. That was merely a by-product. My intent was show how our attempts to accommodate ourselves to capitalism’s victory leads to alternative selves which over time grow to hate us for our weakness.

That was my business plan.

The early twenty-first century with its wars on terror and its stupid ways of making money was a time of great boredom and paranoia, on both the macro and micro levels. There was a siege outside my house, the climax of which inspires the first chapter of The Red Men and Shynola’s short film Dr Easy. There was a gun man in the street and a body in a suitcase in the park. I pushed my daughter in her buggy through Hackney and plotted escape routes in the likely event of the detonation of a dirty bomb (the Eurotunnel line being dug under my house seemed my best bet). The madness I encountered every time I left my house was dripping down from the very top: evil honey from an over-tipped jar, getting into all your stuff, covering it in sweet, sticky delusion.

It was hard to maintain a sense of perspective. The Red Men makes no effort to. About halfway through, I made the conscious decision to vault down the rabbit hole (the rabbit hole being my second planned escape route in case of a dirty bomb on the streets of Hackney).

A firm grasp on reality is only one of the arrows in the writer’s quiver.

Nonetheless, this hysterical condition produced infelicities in the prose that a wiser, cooler head would omit. Now that The Red Men is being republished as an ebook by Gollancz, I’ve taken the opportunity to tidy up the text. I’ve cut out the more deranged commentary. I’ve made minor amendments to some of the tech: obviously, my astonishing prescience meant that I knew that screens would be ubiquitous, but what I didn’t predict was rise of the haptic interface of touch so I’ve expanded the range of haptic gestures the screens respond to: the screens can now be activated by a blown kiss, a whistle, or a coy flutter of the eyelids. I’ve simplified the point-of-view of the novel and I’ve moved a chapter of back story deeper into the book. All of these changes have been made at my instigation to make the act of reading the novel as immersive and compelling as possible. Every edit has been made so that The Red Men goes down as smoothly as a spoonful of evil honey.

This is the first time The Red Men has been available as a digital edition. I always knew that one day my novel would find its true home, on the same screens which torment its characters; sometimes, I am so prescient that sometimes my wife has to chase me from the village with a pitchfork.