SOCKPUPPET - Matthew Blakstad SOCKPUPPET

Matthew Blakstad (www.matthewblakstad.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£16.99

Days before the nationwide rollout of Number 10’s Digital Citizen initiative, news appears online that the pilot scheme has been hacked, and the data stolen. The source of the information becomes an immediate suspect, but there’s only one problem: famous Parley personality sic_girl doesn’t exist; she’s a piece of software created by hacker Dani Farr to win a bet, and there’s no way she should be revealing the kind of information she has started sharing with the world. Dani finds that her own private life suddenly becomes very public, her career and reputation in tatters. Pressure is also mounting on Minister Bethany Lehrer who has staked her career on Digital Citizen: is the data as safe as she claims, and just who is Mondan Plc, the company who manages the service and the collected data, a company not on the government’s list of sanctioned suppliers?

Matthew Blakstad’s debut novel fuses the political and technological worlds to examine the concept of identity in our increasingly Internet-driven world. In a storyline that might have been torn from the headlines, Sockpuppet looks at what defines us in this world: our identity – our most important asset as members of civilisation – is little more than a set of data stored on vast servers across the globe, a collection of personalities that represent the different versions of “me” that we often present to different audiences. Through the narrative, he asks a number of fundamental questions that should strike fear into the heart of every person who ever provided personal details online: who, despite security provisions and Acts of Parliament, actually has access to our data? And what happens when our different personalities are linked and cross-referenced, when they start to bleed into one another – what does this mean for that prized ideal for which we all strive: privacy?

It’s a serious message – and one that will make you consider just how much of who you are is no longer in your own hands – presented in an often blackly-comic but always intelligent way. Think The Thick of It written by Neal Stephenson and you’re some way towards understanding what lies behind that grinning pig’s face. The story is told primarily from the points of view of the two main characters, Dani and Bethany. In many ways polar opposites, the women find themselves drawn, in very different ways, into the fray caused by sic_girl’s revelations. On the one hand is Bethany, career politician who talks a good sales pitch but understands little the technology behind the real-world applications of Digital Citizen. Dani, on the other hand, is the archetypal socially inept hacker whose understanding of the technology leads her ask questions, because it shouldn’t be doing what it is doing, and these questions lead Dani into a world of trouble. What’s interesting here is that the two central characters are female, working in what are traditionally male-dominated fields, and Blakstad takes time to look at the continued prevalence of sexism in these fields in particular, and in society in general.

Two characters loom large in the background as the stories of Bethany and Dani play out centre stage. The first is Sean Perce, CEO of Mondan Plc and to all appearances the villain of the piece. A self-made man, Perce is building an empire and looks to be using Lehrer’s project as a means of doing so. As he buys up smaller companies and moves them all into the vicinity of his iconic – and ironically-named – headquarters at 404 City Road, the reader can’t help but question his motives or guess at just how culpable he is in the misfortunes that are haunting both Bethany and Dani. The second character is the ghost (not in the literal sense) of Elyse Martingale, a technological pioneer and political radical who worked with the likes of Turing at Bletchley Park. Sockpuppet is the first book in the Elyse Martingale Cycle, so it’s intriguing to find that she is long dead when the events of the novel occur. But her presence is felt throughout: as well as being the grandmother of Bethany Lehrer, her 1957 book, The Electronic Radical, plays an important role in the development of many of the story’s central players.

I have, for a long time, been a fan of the cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk writings of the likes of Stephenson, or William Gibson, and even the research-laden adventures of the much-missed Michael Crichton. Matthew Blakstad, if his debut novel is anything to go by, fits neatly into this category of writers who like to combine story with detail in an attempt to offer different experiences to different levels of reader. He speaks directly to those of us of a more technological bent through his in-depth discussions on the political and technical issues that surround identity management, his description of social media platform, Parley, or of the technology behind the “personalities” that inhabit the platform, and does so in such a way that the casual reader will also take enjoyment from the reading experience. It’s a fine balance, and one that very few writers manage to find even over the course of several novels, but one that Blakstad strikes without any problems: the story continues to move forward, the reader so engrossed in the writing that the possibility of skipping the detail never crosses the mind.

Brilliant writing and a story that is relevant to every person who has ever used a networked device combine to make Sockpuppet one of the standout debuts of the year. Behind the apt (if coincidental) grinning pig on the front cover is a story that grips you from the outset and leaves you wishing for more as the final page is turned. Darkly comic but intrinsically frightening, this is a cautionary tale of an all-too-possible near future and marks Matthew Blakstad as an extremely talented new voice in the world of speculative fiction.

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