Given the quirky, unsettling nature of its worldbuilding, I suppose it’s appropriate I found something off about The Circle (2013) by Dave Eggers. It chronicles the journey of a young employee, Mae Holland, as she finds her way into the unique corporate culture of The Circle. A Big Data monolith in Silicon Valley, The Circle is basically Google: The Next Generation, easily the world’s most powerful company that has transformed the internet by rendering it easier and more transparent. As Mae starts her modest new career in its Customer Experience department, it feels like a vast, shimmering Shangri-La of an ideal workplace, full of brilliant young co-workers and unimaginable luxury. But as Mae’s career progresses, she finds her very worldview challenged by The Circle’s cult-like community attitude toward the pursuit of knowledge, which accelerates inexorably toward an extreme goal: the utter eradication of privacy.
The Circle is certainly an interesting read. The thematic foundation of the novel is rock solid, and Eggers takes his idea and runs with it, extrapolating the “information wants to be free” cliche to its Orwellian extremes. It’s also a compelling read, more or less: Mae makes for an amusing viewpoint character through which to get acquainted with The Circle, which is a thinly veiled microcosm for data-hungry digital utopianism. Her experiences are entertaining, full of amusing encounters and personal struggles. Meanwhile the intriguing concepts of a sideways, slightly disturbing near future ricochet past her eyeballs.
That said, something about The Circle doesn’t quite work. Perhaps it’s Mae’s personality transformation, which seems artificially extreme to ensure the author’s point is made. Perhaps it’s the culture of The Circle, which seems far too homogenous in its zealous temperament and uniform mission — again, in service to the plot and theme. Indeed, on a broader level, perhaps it’s that the seams are showing: the motives of the characters, their decisions, the nature of the world-building are all tailored toward proving a particular point. This may be appropriate for a fantastical parable, which is a feel The Circle shoots for, but because the point is hammered home with such force, it comes across like a polemic…and as such, there’s not much surprise in its unfolding. The dark turns are telegraphed.
This hardly makes it unworthwhile, however. Eggers makes his point by getting deeply into the heads of its opponents — particularly through one of The Circle’s executives, Eamon Bailey, whose eloquent conversations with Mae about transparency are almost convincing enough to make the Kool-Aid she’s drinking go down smoothly. A gamified, quantified surveillance society almost sounds appealing, when it isn’t terrifying — and Eggers is determined to call our attention to how close we are to that already. It’s a terrific subject for a book, and Eggers certainly commits to it, executing with enthusiasm. But for me, anyway, The Circle treads awkwardly along the line between realistic extrapolation and comic exaggeration, lurching back and forth just enough to make me question the overall worldbuilding. Ultimately, somewhat questionable tactics undermine the important message.