Soul Corporation, by Robert Collins

Soul Corporation
By Robert Collins (William Heinemann, 2004, 289p, £10.99)

Many authors will tell you they were inspired by reading a published book so bad they felt they could only do better by default. If Robert Collins’s Soul Corporation had been published as Sf, I would say it should therefore be remembered fondly by future household names whose debut novels will hit the stands in the latter part of this decade. As it is, it’s not really a surprise that Soul Corporation is marketed as “General & literary fiction”, because no decent Sf editor would let this through as it is.

It’s not badly written. The spelling and the grammar can’t be faulted. Collins can string a sentence together. So what goes wrong? Quite simply, he seems unaware that the logic of a story set in the future, the laws of cause and effect and character-driven action, all work exactly the same as in a story set at any other time. I read a story expecting that the events described will be the most important and formative things to have happened to at least one character in their life so far. I expect the character(s) to learn, grow, develop. At the end of the story I expect to understand why the author thought it was worth telling me this in the first place.

Apparently, in general & literary fiction they do it different.

Esh is a poor lower middle class girl from East Stratford, but that and an odd first name are the only two strikes against her. She is athletic and strong, able single-handedly to take out an offensive drunk who requires three large bouncers to remove him from the building, and to jog 11 clicks in 30 minutes, leaving her four ex-Green Beret jogging partners prostrate. She is gorgeous to look at – men fall in love with her on sight. And she is dead brainy – after the mysterious Foundation paid for her education at one of the nation’s best schools, she sat the acclaimed FTDs (Fast Track Diplomas) and came first in the country.

In fact, so much does this prodigy have it made that her career options number precisely two: the Bank, or the Corporation, both ominously capitalised. When the Bank abruptly turns her down, it never even crosses her mind that she can maybe use that beauteous bod and brain to make her own luck: start her own firm, move into PR, become an actress, write a book, get a degree, something. No, it’s off to LA and the clutches of the Corporation, where for the next seven years she is to be the public face of a product so breath-taking no one even tells her what it is until after (after) the launch. Before going, she spends a week having the 1000-page contract explained to her in minute detail by the Corporation’s lawyers. Despite this, it still comes as a surprise once she is installed in her new LA mansion to learn that the Corporation now owns her body, soul and every breath, all exactly as the contract said it would. You begin to suspect the intellectual rigour of those much-vaunted FTDs.

The product in question is EVO, the ability to pick the best genetic characteristics for your children even prior to conception. And here we get the first faint twinges of science fictional speculation, resolutely drowned out by the author shouting in our ear about how lovely, beautiful, helpless, unhappy etc. Esh is. He needs to do this because Esh never does anything to show any of it herself. She is easily the most passive character I have ever read in a published book, doing nothing of her own initiative – bar slipping out of her compound for extra-contractual nooky with boyfriend – and slightly less two dimensional than the paper her story is printed on. This could be a cunning move by the author to underline the unreality of her new rootless, public digital persona. Could be, but I’d find it easier to believe if she was surrounded in counterpoint by vibrant, living, three dimensional characters rather than the equally 2D cast that we find instead, whose natures are summed up with pithy descriptions like “He was a little screwy and goofy-looking.” Two of the most defining characters in her or anyone’s life, Esh’s Mum and Dad, whom she loves and adores deeply (apparently), are just Mum and Dad – nothing else. We’re told they do jobs they enjoy from home, for little pay but lots of personal fulfilment. We’re not told what these jobs are. We’re not even told their names (and we never learn the family surname). In the flesh, bar one admittedly key scene near the end, we only ever see them sitting in the kitchen, drinking cups of tea. (The key scene is in the hospital: they’re still sitting, but this time they’re drinking coffee.) We also see them occasionally on screen as they chat with their daughter from home by video link, but there’s a horrible feeling the camera is set up in the kitchen. If you stop looking at their world, it goes away. Esh’s world exists solely in a small bubble of awareness around her.

To make that world, Collins cheerfully plunders Minority Report and Blade Runner, though the sun does shine in this LA. iBoards on every available surface beam intrusive, personalised, interactive advertising straight into the brain or the eyeball, to be dealt with or not by your implanted Interface. Up in orbit, SkyBoards – hundred-mile long orbital platforms like digital advertising hoardings, but much bigger – do the same thing on a larger scale. Both are prone to hacking by the subversive Team (another capitalisation), who like to insert little messages of their own, the scamps.

In one scene, the product launch, there is the threat of a sense of wonder as the massive SkyBoards align in orbit so that Esh’s face can be flashed across an entire hemisphere. In fact, there’s so much that could make the reader gasp – or wince, recognising this as the hell Collins clearly intends it to be. But like Esh’s vain stabs at character development, it’s all drowned out as Collins explains the technology with the equivalent wonder and redundancy of saying “she took out her mobile phone and pressed SELECT + * to unlock the keyboard. Then she pressed SELECT again to get the MESSAGES menu, and once more to choose ‘Write a message’. The predictive text messaging technology developed in the late 1990s meant she could simply press each key once, building up a word which the phone’s inbuilt chip recognised from its dictionary …” And so on.

Other aspects of this future simply do not make sense. The either/or career options open to Esh, whom we first meet in a bar in Oxford Street full of wealthy, trendy types who have all clearly managed to find something else to do with their lives. The complete absence in this future, barring the advertising media and Interfaces, of any technological advance later than about 2004. The homeless of this future, the NAPs (it means “No Account Protocol”), who were cast adrift when all money went digital because they have no implanted interfaces themselves. Ordinary folk like Esh give NAPs a wide berth in case they are mugged, their implants ripped out and sold on. Sold for what, exactly, given that in the previous paragraph we were told all money was digital and you needed an implant to access it? Answers on a postcard, please, beamed direct to the optic nerve.

The story unexpectedly kicks in with an oomph 40 pages before the end, but it’s way too late. We learn exactly who Esh is, why the Corporation had to come all the way from LA to London’s East End to find a face for its product, and how she gets out of her contractual bind. (Though just walking away, or not signing in the first place, would have worked, and left her better off.) Her final dash for freedom is actually quite exciting and readers whose will to live has not been completely eroded might muster a small cheer. It will be quashed when we realise she has simply swapped one prison for another. She has been sprung by the Team: the price is she must sacrifice every single vestige of her old life if she is to stay free. Change her name and face, never see her parents or friends again, accept a life on the hoof. It’s no more than the Team themselves have already done – four young men, the only four in the world bright enough to hack the Corporation, giving up all chances of lives, girlfriends etc. for the joy of inserting rude messages on the SkyBoards and knowing it really pisses the Corporation off.

And Esh swallows it, making a bold farewell speech via the SkyBoards before disappearing into an existence just as trammelled as her contractual obligations to the Corporation, but actually convinced she is free. Once again, the certified brainiest babe of her generation has walked right into it with her eyes wide open. Once again she is utterly passive, relying entirely on other people’s actions to make anything at all happen in her life. What exactly was in those FTDs?

And it’s all a crying shame, because every time Collins hits you with a new fact about Esh it becomes clear he has a very clear vision for her – who she is, what she does, what she wants. He has a story to tell about this media-saturated, far-from-ideal future. He has points to make about liberty, pre-destination, self-will. He just can’t communicate them, preferring instead to explain the minutiae of everything in case the reader doesn’t get it.

Lessons learnt? Character development? Not in general & literary fiction. It’s as if Collins is afraid to let the readers into the heads of his characters because – who knows? – they might draw their own conclusions about something! But a good science fiction editor (you’d like to think a good editor, period, but apparently not) would have helped him get to the point and tell us the story, rather than carefully point out all the intended sense of wonder in case our own imaginations can’t fill in the details.