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Fiction: Silicon and surveillance

Sean Carroll finds Thomas Pynchon on compelling form in a tale of big data and bigger conspiracies.

Bleeding Edge

  • Thomas Pynchon
The Penguin Press: 2013. 9781594204234 | ISBN: 978-1-5942-0423-4

Thomas Pynchon's novels have several recurring themes: paranoia and conspiracy, pastiches of high and low culture, synchronicity and coincidence, shadowy networks lurking around every corner, and the impact of science and technology. With the coming of the Internet age and the surveillance society that sprang up in the wake of 11 September 2001, it seems as though reality has finally caught up with his vision. In his latest work, Bleeding Edge, Pynchon takes full advantage of this convergence.

The first question asked of a new Pynchon book is: is this one of the sprawling, spiralling, time-tripping monsters with innumerable characters and a plot that is tricky to bring into focus, like Gravity's Rainbow or Against the Day; or is it one of the fun detective stories with a well-defined protagonist, like The Crying of Lot 49 or Inherent Vice? Bleeding Edge is definitely in the latter category. There is a colourful cast of memorable personalities, and high jinks often ensue, but the tale is told linearly, from the point of view of an acknowledged main character, with something approximating an explicit goal.

Credit: PETER DAZELEY/THE IMAGE BANK/GETTY

The year is 2001. The dot-com bubble has just burst and Silicon Alley, New York's version of Silicon Valley, is in disarray. The Internet revolution is just beginning to gather steam. And, of course, the imminent 11 September attacks loom over every page.

The novel begins simply, in the mundane beauty of an ordinary morning. Maxine Tarnow is walking her kids to school in Manhattan on the first day of spring, stopping to admire the sunlight shining through a pear tree's blossom. The lapsed-licence fraud investigator is about to be drawn into a sinister web of intrigue. An old acquaintance asks her to investigate the suspiciously successful dot-com for which he is filming a corporate documentary. Poking around brings Tarnow into contact with shady hackers, gregarious Italian–American venture capitalists, Mossad agents, bloggers, petty fraudsters who are in over their heads, trophy wives, a private investigator whose primary tool is his sense of smell, a pair of disarmingly likeable Russian gangsters with a fondness for hip hop, and a mysterious government operative. Some will be exiled, some will run away and some will carry on; not all will survive.

Pynchon often turns to science and engineering as sources of imagery and symbolism. His first novel, V., which has its 50th anniversary this year, discussed circuit diagrams and humanoid automatons. Gravity's Rainbow, published 40 years ago, featured thermodynamics, chemistry and probability theory. Set in the eighteenth century, the 1997 Mason & Dixon meditated on the metaphysics of a clockwork universe while anachronistically nodding to the collapse of the wave function in quantum mechanics as a metaphor for the march of the British surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon westward through the American colonies into unknown territory. Bleeding Edge's big-data-era backdrop is a perfect fit for Pynchon's sensibility.

When you are interested in paranoia and conspiracies, it is important to distinguish signals from noise, and true clues from false leads. This is also the situation in which modern scientists find themselves, searching for significance among countless spurious correlations in a flood of data.

Tarnow, when not breaking into secret passages or pulling her handgun on rapacious dot-com capitalists, spots fraudulent bookkeeping through deviations from Benford's Law (the expected distribution of first digits in numerical data), and her secretary's observations of a pattern in the empty cells of an Excel spreadsheet.

Geek culture is evocatively rendered, often through throwaway jokes and asides. The interior of a smoke-filled limousine has “picked up a Gaussian blur”; a couple, asked if they will be living together or separately, answer “True” in unison, and then explain “Sorry. Nonexclusive 'or.'” Characters explore the Deep Web — a real but murky sector of the Internet unindexed by search engines and populated by dynamic content and entrepreneurs concerned with privacy. And they lurk in DeepArcher (say it out loud), a virtual space of Pynchon's invention. This is a virtual-reality interface that grows organically, allowing its denizens to construct sanctuaries away from the surface web with no clear instructions — “part of getting constructively lost”. Characters who have met untimely ends in “meatspace” seem to linger on in DeepArcher, although it is impossible to tell who is really behind the face of an avatar.

The attacks on the World Trade Center happen about two-thirds of the way through the book. Rather than inducing a dramatic change, they lead to a slight shift in balance, pulling some notes down and bringing others to the foreground. Every type of conspiracy theory is tossed into the pot and stirred. Pynchon highlights the life-goes-on aspect of New York after the attacks, but laments the swiftness with which “forces in whose interests it compellingly lies to seize control of the narrative” work to keep people “cranked up, scared, and helpless”.

Bleeding Edge is an elegiac yet compulsively readable novel. The humour crackles, eliciting chuckles on almost every page. No one works magic with words like Pynchon, and here he is at the height of his powers, by turns gripping, thought-provoking, inventive, touching and poetic, not to mention warmly human. Tarnow is a rich, believable character, and we are fortunate to be privy to her wry commentary on the rogue's gallery of characters who cross her path.

'Big data' is a modern buzzword, but a long-standing theme for Pynchon has been how the search for signals in the noise is, in part, a quest for meaning amid chaos and entropy. At the end of the novel, in a world transformed by atrocities large and small, Tarnow's boys once again head off to school. This time they make the journey without their mother. Life does go on, even as everything changes; the best we can do is care.

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Correspondence to Sean M. Carroll.

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Carroll, S. Fiction: Silicon and surveillance. Nature 501, 312–313 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/501312a

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