Book review: HellSans, by Ever Dundas

The convergence of flesh and technology has rarely been so vivid as in this remarkable dystopian thriller from Ever Dundas, writes Stuart Kelly

There is a pun buried at the heart of this wonderful novel. What is HellSans? It is a font, a new font that induces “bliss” in those reading it. But a font is also the place where you are baptised, and this is a baptism of fire. It is a novel that evokes various other writers – J G Ballard springs to mind, as do Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and many pulpy, schlocky books that would not be considered “literary fiction”. It is a rollicking read, but one with serious intent. It also shares a lineage with Ali Smith’s How To Be Both in that it comes in two forms: the reader either first encounters CEO Jane Ward or the scientist Ichorel Smith, and their narratives can be read in either order before they collide. It is not the only doubling in the book. The idea of the doppelganger has been somewhat overplayed in Scottish fiction – Hogg, Stevenson, Herdman, Rankin et al – and it is to her credit here that Dundas finds a new way to deal with a perennial problem. To state it bluntly, the novel has always relied on an 18th century idea that humans are intact, discrete, autonomous, choice-making entities. What would the novel look like without fixed identities or with fluid possibilities? As one of the two says: “I think I can impersonate myself”.

HellSans is set in a shockingly feasible future. Ward is the CEO of the sinisterly named “The Company”, which provides biomechanical assistants; the relatively drone like Ino (a sort of domestic servant) and the more interactive Inex. The Inex is a combination of a smartphone, Alexa, the Cloud and a Fitbit, monitoring the owner, offering advice and, as their slogan goes, "ALWAYS AND FOREVER HELPING YOU BE THE BEST YOU CAN BE” (it seems important that that is in shouty capitals). It is also, to all intents and purposes, your memory. Icho’s work is on HellSans Allergy, a condition whereby people become sick because of the ubiquitous typeface, and who are being corralled by the government into ghettos. A thriller-style plot means that the privileged and supercilious Ward discovers she is “deviant” and ends up in the ghetto, after witnessing a crime. Icho is determined to find her, as she may have, if not a cure, then a means of palliative care for the HSAs. The ghetto is also home to the Seraphs, who are according to whom you listen either a terrorist group or a liberation movement: and it’s a smart, smart pun again. The Seraphs add serifs to the HellSans font. Then things get very dark indeed, as any novel that has the Fleming-esque line “if I chose to, I could kill five billion people” would.

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It is an intensely bodily book. Those of a squeamish disposition may wish to flick to another page. One character is “shivering, shaking, sweating, shedding, shitting, bleeding, vomiting” at one point, those allergic have cracked lips, perpetual nausea, scars, teeth that fall out. Other characters are tortured in full detail. This is made more visceral by the idea that anything that happens to one’s Inex can be felt by the owner. The convergence of flesh and technology has rarely been so vivid. As Ward gloats, “People don’t realise how vulnerable they are, what their Inex – the Company – has access to. Your physical stats, conscious thoughts, what’s beneath, the Möbius loop of emotions and the body, your history in every fine detail, the recordings – every moment of your life. They don’t think of all that – the Inex is just an expensive toy, a servant, a pet. They take it for granted, not understanding it knows them better than they know themselves”. That is far more inducing of goose-flesh than any of the retching and spewing that goes on in the novel.

Ever Dundas PIC: Cinn CurtisEver Dundas PIC: Cinn Curtis
Ever Dundas PIC: Cinn Curtis

The story of Icho and Jane more than passes the Bechdel Test in terms of female characters not just discussing men, usually romantically. There is a queer aspect to the plot, but done without apology or insistence. In one part, the story of the characters is already being written by their arachnid-fuelled cyborgs, and what the reader has already read is called into question. It seems the machines have a plot in mind. (Part of this is a witty satire on lazy writing – there has to be an arc, there has to be dramatic tension, there has to be a form of closure: crikey, but there is).

HellSans is a remarkable and admirable work. I liked the fact that it is difficult to imagine what an Inex is actually like – they can seem cat-like or spider-like or humanoid – so the reader has to exercise her or his imagination. I rather rashly said that if Dundas’s debut, Goblin, did not win the Saltire First Book Award, I would walk naked down Princes Street. When she accepted said award, she did claim it was only given to her to prevent such a public horror. This time I shall just say that the late Iain M Banks has a worthy, horrible, gimlet-eyed heir.

HellSans, by Ever Dundas, Angry Robot, £9.99