Gollancz 20 January
“YOU’VE exceeded everyone’s expectations.” These are words that Tanta, the hero of Louise Carey’s InScape series, hears often from her boss. The resulting dopamine rush is strong enough to make her knees tremble and to reinforce her total devotion to her employer, InTech.
InTech isn’t just any tech company. It is also the local government, a role it assumed in the wake of a global disaster that obliterated nation states. Civil rights have been replaced by end-user licence agreements, and violations of community guidelines get you executed.
Tanta, like most of her coworker-citizens, has internalised her company’s values so completely that the worst thing you can say about someone is that they are “not being very corporate”.
In Outcast, the second book in the series, Tanta has been assigned the task of finding the deeply uncorporate mole who is selling company secrets. But there is a twist: first, she needs to rid her mind of the phrases used by the corporate autocracy to command loyalty in its citizen-employees.
This is the point at which the series pivots to deft satire, skewering the cult-like employee culture that exists not only in Carey’s dystopian future but in our present, too. From Mark Zuckerberg’s exhortation to “move fast and break things” to Disney’s insistence that all its employees, down to the janitorial staff, identify as “cast members”, corporations already use certain phrases to get inside employees’ heads. Carey has a degree in psychology, which clearly informs her send-up of the way companies do this.
“In Outcast, your employer determines whether you live or die and you think that is good and fair”
In Battle of the Linguist Mages, Scotto Moore takes the idea of weaponised linguistics to the next level. In this world, human language began as an embedded sentient alien mind virus that colonised humanity back in the mists of time, shaping the way we communicated ideas. Then one human finds a way to weaponise these mind viruses into “power morphemes”, sounds that can bypass logic and motor control to evoke a particular feeling, action or belief.
This book won’t be for everyone. It veers wildly from one style to the next: one minute it reads as a snackable version of Ready Player One, the next it channels the loopy extravagance of Douglas Adams, then it abruptly skids into the style of a dense Wikipedia entry. In between the main plot, driven by a glitter-caked, disco-themed multiplayer game where bad guys are killed with a kaleidoscopic beam, Moore plunges into discursive ravines where he explores concepts like memetics and the weaponised persuasion tactics of the advertising industry.
These are very different books by very different authors, but the thread running through both is the unstoppable evolution of persuasion techniques. Using words as weapons is as old as advertising and politics, of course. The question is where the iterations will end. In Outcast, the endpoint is that your employer determines whether you live or die, and you think that is good and fair. In Battle of the Linguist Mages, others can use words to control your ability to think.
What’s scary is that if language as a form of mind control is even theoretically possible, you can be sure some executive has assigned a working group to it. This is the world we live in now. But at least we get to laugh at it through the medium of science fiction.
More on these topics: