Years of research lead a scientist to discover a way in which people can be ‘upgraded’ to better, more advanced, more intelligent versions of themselves, but it is a science in its early form, It is not fully tested. In the wrong hands it could be dangerous.
The scientist is Naomi Cheng, who juggles her day job with being the single mother of an autistic son Colt. Colt is a tech genius. He has built an online game which functions as an alternative world, a place to escape to from reality, or the “crapworld” as he dismissively calls it. He also struggles with his condition, and thinks Naomi’s research can help him. Without her permission, he injects himself with the solution Naomi has created.
Yet watching all the time is Naomi’s ex-husband and Colt’s estranged father Ryan, a member of the US army, who sees the military potential of Naomi’s research, and how it can be weaponised. He will do whatever it takes for the US to have they research all to itself, even if that means killing his son and former partner.
This is Connect, a cyber-thriller, coming of age, futuristic, love story by Julian Gough, one of Galway’s great characters and creatives, who now lives in Berlin. The novel was launched in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop last year, while this week Picador published the paperback version. The novel has enjoyed a positive response from critics and fellow writers. Donal Ryan called it “a work of genius” while Sebastian Barry described Julian as “a wonderful writer”.
For Julian, Connect was an important book to write. Through it, he felt he “grew up” as a writer, and he acknowledges how important Solana Joy, his second-wife, was in helping him get through the writing of Connect, as well as through some difficult times personally.
“In the modern West, it can take men an astonishingly long time to grow up. A lot of them never do,” Julian tells me. “My first marriage broke up while I was writing Connect, and a lot of that was my fault, because I simply hadn’t grown up. So I tried to face up to that, and grow the hell up. When my first marriage ended, Solana Joy saved me from despair. When your old life collapses, you can go through some seriously bleak times, and think your entire life is over, that’s it. And to get another chance at life is amazing.
“I think she might have saved my life, and in doing so, she also saved my book, which is why I dedicated it to her. There’s a layer of love and humanity in Connect that is there because of her. I also put her favourite T-shirt on one of the characters, as a kind of oblique tribute. The Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds T-shirt in the book, the one that says “Bad Seed” - that’s hers.”
A multi-genre thriller, Connect is quite a departure from Julian’s previous novels, Juno and Juliet, Jude: Level 1, and Jude in London. “I don't like repeating myself: I like to learn something new with every book, explore a new world with every book,” says Julian. “And I'd loved science fiction as a child, but for some reason never got around to writing any. I blame NUI Galway! My three years studying English literature, and reading Beowulf, and Chaucer, and Joyce, were very enjoyable, but you can lose track of your own personal taste, and forget why you loved books in the first place.
'Right now, with the way the news works (cherry-picking the three worst things that happened ), and the way social media amplify outrage, we have a falsely depressing view of our world'
“In recent years, as smartphones and computer games and the internet started to transform the lives of everyone I know, I thought, this is ridiculous, we’re not living in the world of Joyce, we’re living in the world of the science fiction writers I love - Frederik Pohl, Ursula K Le Guin, Philip K Dick, William Gibson…If you want to write about now, science fiction provides the best metaphors. And it’s fun to write, and read! You can make amazing things happen!”
The technological vision of the future Julian presents in Connect is believable, precisely because it is grounded in a solid understanding of where digital technology is now, and, significantly, where it is heading. It’s world of intelligent drones, driverless cars, and online, immersive, games that blur the distinctions between reality and artifice feel like they may only be a few years away.
“Oh, as William Gibson says, the future is here already, it's just unevenly distributed. There are parts of China where most of the things I mention in Connect have already happened,” says Julian. “Do I welcome it? Well, I think the future will happen whether we like it or not. So we may as well try to enjoy it. And as a writer, I hope I can maybe even shape it, influence it. Right now, with the way the news works (cherry-picking the three worst things that happened on earth today ), and the way social media amplify outrage, we have a falsely depressing view of our world. Plus, human beings always think the end of the world is near; the golden age was when they were young, and now it’s terrible - which means there’s a tendency for people to see the looming future as a catastrophe, and to be afraid of it.
“But step back a little. You can see we have reduced the rate of grinding, brutal, poverty from about 90 per cent of humanity to about 10 per cent of humanity in just a century. That’s astonishing. Child mortality rates have decreased 58 per cent globally, since 1990. That’s tens of millions of kids, surviving and thriving, who would have died at any other time in history. What a beautiful thing!
“Things are actually getting a lot better, in material terms, for humanity as a whole. But are they getting better in spiritual terms? That’s the problem. So I don’t think we have a problem with technology, I think we have a problem with meaning. And I guess Connect wanted to wrestle with that.”
In this, Connect also goes against the grain in contemporary fiction in its attitude to religion and spirituality. Through the character of Naomi, Gough argues that technology does not obliterate the need for the spiritual (be it God or some other understanding of spirituality ), but perhaps raises the need for it.
'The whole book is an argument against reductionist materialism as the sole path to truth, and for a more holistic view of our place in the universe'
“I think we've had a huge problem in the West since the rise of science and the decline of religion,” says Julian. “We can’t go back. Nobody wants to see a return to Magdalen Laundries and clerical child abuse. But we can’t go forward without a system of belief that gives meaning to the universe.
“So how do you find meaning in the universe, when science, in its current rationalist and reductive mode, sees it as dead matter obeying blind laws? Connect, I think, finds a way to solve that problem. In fact, that layer of the book, where the universe is revealed to have a deep meaning that’s fully compatible with science, is very important to me. I was so pleased when Michael Harding praised that particular aspect of the book.
“The whole book is an argument against reductionist materialism as the sole path to truth, and for a more holistic view of our place in the universe. Naomi is probably the most sympathetic character in Connect, she’s the heart of the book, because she has empathy, and a moral compass. She is a scientist who places her science in an ethical framework.
“I do think science has a few unexamined dogmas of its own right now, and that a hyper-rationalist like Richard Dawkins is simply the mirror image of the hyper-religious extremists he rails against. Both of them see half the truth of life, and are blind to the other half. Science and spirituality have access to different kinds of knowledge; they are both capable of finding a kind of truth the other cannot, and we need them both in order to understand ourselves and the world – so this science/religion fight is counter-productive. Each will need to yield some ground to make room for the other.”
Julian is also a successful children's author, and it is in this guise that he will next return. "The next book of mine to be published will be about a rabbit and a bear," he says. "It’s for five-year-olds! While I was writing Connect, which took me seven years, I accidentally developed this other life as a children’s author, with the great Jim Field doing the drawings. Those books are published in 25 languages now. So the fourth Rabbit & Bear book comes out in August, it’s called A Bite In The Night; it has the most gorgeous illustrations. I think Jim will win awards for this one."