Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Circle

I just finished reading The Circle, by Dave Eggers. It would like to be the new 1984. Things are moving too fast for that. By 2015 it will sound dated, maybe even quaint. His message that we’re allowing our privacy to slip away in the name of connectivity, is obvious, but no less important one. For me, the message is clouded by one extended metaphor that needn’t have been so sloppy.

One of the triumvirate that runs The Circle (think Facebook, Google, Apple and the Moonies merged and ravenous), has a fondness for fish of the deepwater kind. With his billions he builds a one person diving device that can take him to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The deepest spot in the trench--and the ocean--is nearly seven miles below the surface. On it’s maiden voyage, the diving vessel brings back an assortment of never-before-seen creatures.

Here’s where Eggers loses me. He makes no effort to tip his hat toward science. With 25 words he could have superficially described the care they took to keep creatures evolved to survive beneath more than six miles of ocean alive. Instead, he spends a couple of pages describing a transfer between one apparently open tank to another in which the deep sea creatures are dropped into the water in baggies so they could slowly acclimate to the temperature of the new tank.

All the critters had eyes, which would likely be superfluous at the bottom of the ocean. Yet, none of them were affected by the light streaming in from beyond the glass where people were watching.

To make his metaphor work--and I have to stop here and mention that I accidentally typed in “meataphor,” which is actually apt. To make his metaphor work, the shark he has captured is insatiable. It is also transparent, which lets us watch it eat then digest other critters. Plausible enough, but he has to push the metaphor. The process from fully functional turtle to little digested flakes drifting down to the sand from the waste chute of the shark takes about 60 seconds.

Writers have to give us some excuse for our willingness to suspend disbelief. Yes, we can accept that people might fall for the allure of a perfect company that gives them infinitely useful stuff in exchange for every nanoparticle of information about them. But if a writer also asks us to believe that you can just take a deep sea shark and plop it in the equivalent of a goldfish bowl, they risk losing our suspension of disbelief. We know they’re pulling that part out of their--let’s say, shark chute.

I enjoyed most of this cautionary tale. I would have enjoyed it more if the author had spent a little time making us believe the scientific plausibility of its central metaphor.

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