Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Novel Prompts a Conversation About How We Use Technology

Or has he missed his target, producing a sanctimonious screed that fails to humanize its characters and understand its subject?

Book critics are divided over the quality of Mr. Eggers’s highly anticipated novel “The Circle,” which went on sale Tuesday. But in Silicon Valley and beyond, the book’s theme promises to spark an even bigger debate over the 21st-century hyperconnected world that Mr. Eggers describes.

Set in an “undefined future time,” Mr. Eggers’s novel tells the story of Mae Holland, a young idealist who comes to work at the Circle, an immensely powerful technology company that has conquered all its competitors by creating a single log-in for people to search, shop and socialize online.

Initial orders have lifted the book to the No. 21 spot on Amazon, no small achievement for literary fiction, and booksellers reported selling copies almost immediately after opening their doors on Tuesday.

In the tech world, some readers have bristled at the reflection of their world. “It makes me feel defensive because it hits home,” said Esther Dyson, an investor in tech start-ups.

Other early readers of the book said they were reconsidering their attachment to the Internet. In an essay titled “Dave Eggers Made Me Quit Twitter,” Michele Filgate, a writer and bookseller in Brooklyn, wrote about her experience swearing off social media for a week, an experiment prompted by the unsettling feeling the book produced.

“I hope that it allows people to step back and have a conversation about how we want to use technology,” said Jennifer Jackson, Mr. Eggers’s editor at Knopf. “I don’t think that this book is really going to make people stop using social media and I don’t think that’s at all Dave’s intent. This book is going to make people be more thoughtful — that’s my hope.” Mr. Eggers, who lives in the Bay Area, declined to be interviewed. He is not doing any readings or events to publicize the book.

Knopf and McSweeney’s, which are publishing the book together, have planned a print run of 125,000, an ambitious number in a busy fall book season where Mr. Eggers will compete against fiction by Elizabeth Gilbert, Jhumpa Lahiri and Thomas Pynchon. A spokeswoman for McSweeney’s declined to reveal the advance.

On the McSweeney’s Web site, Mr. Eggers said that he did not base the Circle on any particular company like Facebook or Google, nor did he visit the campuses of Google, Twitter or Facebook, interview their employees or read books about them.

Yet Silicon Valley is recognizable everywhere. The Circle most closely resembles Google, with its Google Glass-like retinal computers, initiatives to map far-flung parts of the world, a triumvirate running the company, antitrust investigations and a secret lab for future projects. TruYou, the fictional company’s core product, has the letters of one of the founder’s names, just like PageRank, Google’s search algorithm, is named after the Google co-founder Larry Page.

The Circle’s founders have mantras that paint a troubling, dystopian picture, like “sharing is caring” and “secrets are lies.”

Those refrains are similar in tone to remarks made by executives like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Eric E. Schmidt of Google, who once said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Representatives of Google and Facebook declined to comment on the book. In early September, a spokesman for Google e-mailed Knopf to ask for an advance copy of the book, saying that it sounded like “an interesting an important read for us,” according to the e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by The Times. Knopf did not comply with the request.

Glen Robbe, the manager at Books Inc., in Mountain View, Calif., said that he had read parts of “The Circle” and recognized the Google campus, a place he has visited frequently to sell books during author visits.

“Dave Eggers is so well known in the Bay Area, I have no doubt in my mind it will be a huge hit,” Mr. Robbe said. “People will be enlightened by it.”

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