“Uncanny Valley:” An Uneasy Dispatch from the World of Tech

Uncanny Valley, Wiener’s new memoir, tracks the years as Silicon Valley’s prospects soured, both in the public eye, and for Wiener herself, as venture capitalists and their cult-like philosophies emerged. The memoir reads quickly and juicily, like the Young Adult dystopian’s final form, where the rules of a warped society are described, mulled over, and most disquieting, remain.

Uncanny Valley, a memoir by Anna Wiener, chronicles her years working for tech startups in their golden age of money and hype. Glitch artwork by nesnad.

It’s 2014. The dread is a slow trickle, but eventually, it will arrive. Now, though, the promise of the tech industry still has Americans of all stripes enraptured, including a 25-year-old publishing assistant, one Anna Wiener.

She flees publishing for tech because her world lacks promise and security. “The truth,” she writes, “was that we were expendable.” A high turnover rate, paired with the contradictions inherent in the lives and salaries of higher-ups, makes a future in publishing look bleak. The tech industry has eerily similar attrition, eerily similar hypocrisies––but those revelations are a few years obscured.

Uncanny Valley, Wiener’s new memoir, tracks these years as Silicon Valley’s prospects soured, both in the public eye, and for Wiener herself, as venture capitalists and their cult-like philosophies emerged, the once friendly employer-provided dinner revealing its true nature: a carb-heavy nudge to keep working. The memoir reads quickly and juicily, like the Young Adult dystopian’s final form, where the rules of a warped society are described, mulled over, and most disquieting, remain. Its gradual build from the almost endearing camaraderie of a small startup to the frightening political implications only starting to take place, leaves quite the residual chill, fitting for a time of reeling––but not without the wry humor an affluent, insular community like Silicon Valley is due.

Wiener, indeed, is sharp on the subcultural subtleties––she never drops “pompous” or “elitist,” preferring instead to describe the ubiquity of those hiking shoes with toes, the simulacrum of its former subversiveness modern San Francisco has become, the company apparel, the endless ways in which an obsession with optimization manifests itself. Uncanny Valley doesn’t espouse any profound truths about Silicon Valley we didn’t already know, but it does capture the culture of a very specific moment, memorializing for future generations portentous incidents of negligence, and illuminates the circumstances that make it the norm.

The dots are all a matter of public record. The political targeting and resulting echo chambers on Facebook are a matter of public scandal. But Wiener’s memoir connects the dots on very human terms, helping us understand why such an excess of power was concentrated in such a vulnerable place so quickly. Why the CEOs of startups cast a spell over their employees. Why the magic is so tempting to a generation of precarious finances and cloistered, ruthless industries (re: publishing) that took the recession as a call to shut their gates to all but a privileged few.

Wiener describes with pungent self-awareness and careful understanding the way her CEO at an analytics startup captured her sympathy despite his tendency to make employees cry and to view his very human workforce as a machine in need of a few tweaks for efficiency’s sake. She saw a “yearning,” she writes later, in one of many devastating final hits in the last fifty pages of the book, where all the shrugged-of problems come back to bite. Uncanny Valley is as much about chasing money, security, and potential as it is about looking into the seat of power and seeing a vulnerable, relatable human being with simple wants––not the money and power they eventually amassed while no one was paying attention. That particular trap is second-nature to many of us; Wiener recounts it with unswerving clarity when she remembers her younger self “looking for stories” where she should’ve seen a system. In all the time she spent contemplating the motivations of the CEO (“or at least, my idea of him”), an algorithm with none of those considerations and a ruling class with its eye fixed on the ivory tower were taking shape. She describes her transfixed state with hindsight taking the lead, but her misplaced sensitivity is so compelling that you just can’t help but buy in, even for a moment, even when you’re reading this from the future, where you know what the cost will be.

Uncanny Valley really reckons with the more personal side of our tech fixation, amidst its time of startling changes, giving voice to the promise and hope we saw in the hustlers who were changing the world––and, more vitally, recalls the pain and humiliation of meeting with these idols and being looked straight through.

It’s the same Achilles’ heel that comes to a fatal blow when politics get involved, when tech billionaires come under fire and their followers in hustle culture rush to their defense, when the anxious scroll captivates us by telling us what is wrong with the world and urging us to tweet to fix it. The human brain is hardwired to see faces that aren’t there, but this memoir of disillusionment deals in the invented conscience: goals to better the world giant companies don’t have and sentimental characters that never sat in CEO’s offices, but that we all saw there anyway.

The slow descent at the end of Wiener’s memoir is one of the most sobering I’ve ever read. Its vision of the 2016 election, specifically, though more are beginning to trickle into the literary Spiritus Mundi, rings bleak and prescient, and fades the book into a heavy, lingering end. The author and a few San Francisco friends canvas in northern Nevada on election day. They bring their corporatized feminism from the attention economy in uterus apparel and “nasty woman” bling, completely in the dark about reality outside their gated citadel. As recent memory spoils, it falls on deaf ears. The machine doesn’t stop.

The Subtle Brilliance of “Mansfield Park”

Jane Austen’s lesser-known Mansfield Park begins decades before its heroine, Fanny Price, takes the stage (though far from willingly––she avoids all attention).

The strict expectations and ethical shortcomings of her rich benefactors loom over Fanny Price in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Collage by Pippin Hart. Credits in this post.

Jane Austen’s lesser-known Mansfield Park begins decades before its heroine, Fanny Price, takes the stage (though far from willingly––she avoids all attention). The setup of this quiet, subdued drama is the marital choices of three sisters, the new Mrs. Price into relative poverty, the new Mrs. Norris into circumstances slightly better, and the new Lady Bertram into a vast estate and a title (!).

Years later, when Mrs. Price’s oldest daughter, Fanny, is ten, the Bertrams, with Mrs. Norris’ urgings, take on Fanny for somewhat selfish reasons, and bring her to Mansfield Park. There, she is perpetually behind the Betrams’ daughters in care and attention, and faces constant criticism from her older relatives, and manages to take it all in stride, with carefully-cultivated humility and an unfailingly sweet temperament. If you’ve ever wondered what Jane Eyre would’ve been like if she’d never protested the cruelty of her aunt and cousins, Mansfield Park is it. If you like it when characters stand up for themselves, it may test your patience.

But to Fanny, more than most, there’s more than meets the eye. Her eternally bowed head and boundless shock absorption belie the true substance of one of Austen’s most perceptive characters. Mansfield Park can’t beat the likes of Pride and Prejudice when it comes to a powerful struggle of wills, but its keen observations about how selfishness governs the actions of Fanny’s wealthy not-quite peers rival Pride and Prejudice‘s cleverest social satires, and the conflict in Mansfield Park is incredibly promising––much more interior, and deeply concerned with how best to preserve the dignity and feelings of others (in a subtler, interpersonal sense) when one is far from in power, both personally and socially. With this approach, and these ideas in mind, Mansfield Park levies more pungent and lingering criticism than much of Austen’s better-loved and better-known work.

It can be dispiriting, actively frustrating, even, to watch Fanny be picked apart by her extended family and their wealthy crowd: our dramatic instincts, especially in an era that pursues and uplifts stories about empowered women, have trained us for a fight. In a particularly irksome instance, Mrs. Norris, the cruelest of Fanny’s benefactors, firmly tells her, “Remember, where-ever you are, you must be lowest and last,” and Fanny, after being subjected to an extended lecture in the same general tone, extends a “Yes, m’am,” and demurely accepts her fate. What it suggests is not, as might be tempting to say, a spineless main character whom things just happen to, but rather, Austen’s careful attention to circumstance. She doesn’t merely play at writing a heroine who is told she is lowest and last wherever she goes; she seriously considers the kind of person this rearing would produce, and appreciates how little reprieve some satisfying, fiery retaliation would bring. The “spine” Fanny seems not to have is actually a luxury that only a happy accident of social currency can buy. Even with a richer family than Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price doesn’t have half the means to defend her honor or raise objection to an indignity. Austen knows the substance of this situation, and never compromises it to satisfy.

One of the great ironies of this book (Austen, in her infinite wit, never allows it to escape her notice) is how well the Bertrams’ hopes to render Fanny contrite and self-denying actually prove to work. She ends up so pliant, so repentant, that all their attempts to truly wound her fail. In fact, she stumbles into becoming one of the very few dependable members of the family, almost despite herself. Even if Mansfield Park makes for a fairly drastic response to Austen’s own criticisms of Pride and Prejudice as “rather too light,” it’s still pretty piercing in its irony. One long, amusing sequence in which Fanny’s rich cousins injudiciously attempt to stage a salacious play at the house while Sir Bertram is abroad, causes nothing but angst for Fanny, but in its absurdity is an absolute joy to read.

This owes mostly to the way Austen uses supporting characters as both a model and critique of the rich. Fanny’s cousins, Julia, Maria, and Tom (besides Edmund, who shares Fanny’s uncompromising principles), all have a basic sense of propriety, enough to operate in high society and be generally seen as acceptably polite, but they, as well as the visiting party, are haunted by the specter of privilege, cursed to make a fuss of even the simplest amusements. (As evidenced by the struggle to find a play to perform: “They wanted a piece containing very few characters in the whole, but every character first rate, and three principal women. All the best plays were run over in vain.”) They are also cursed, crucially, to be completely ignorant of how foolish they look––this is where Austen works her magic.

But that doesn’t mean they lack any complexity. The two new arrivals that set much of the book in motion, vibrant young socialites Henry and Mary Crawford, are fleshed out rather generously, a hypnotizing presence at the heart of the story, with tantalizing promises of betterment. In Mary’s case, it’s a spell Edmund, Fanny’s only morally upright cousin, falls for, one that Austen than uses to examine him and the abundance of credit he often trips into giving his own kind––those born exorbitantly wealthy. Both he and Fanny, though, seek out friendship in the Crawfords, she a little more attuned to the family’s faults. Through their discerning (and also rather passive) eyes, we see into the relationship between conscientiousness and circumstance, one Austen depicts consistently but complexly. Some economic turn in every character’s past allows Austen to explain why they do or do not take the needs of others into account, from the harshness that pushes Fanny’s mother to be callous to the luxury that makes Lady Bertram such an absentee adoptive parent. It’s far from satisfying to those who want to be the masters of their own fate, but it’s much richer than many of the ideas of inherent goodness––held at Austen’s time and beyond––could ever hope to be.

Yes, it takes its leads out of the driver’s seat and makes a habit of turning up its nose. But it’s far from a footnote to Pride and Prejudice‘s fame.

“Rook” Combines Dystopia and History, To Mixed Results

After the world ends, in Sharon Cameron’s 2015 dystopia, Rook, strikingly little changes. After technology is disrupted, and life is thrown into disrepair, hundreds of years pass, and eventually, France and Britain enter into their late 18th-century forms, so that Cameron can set her YA adventure novel amidst a strikingly familiar French Revolution, complete with an arranged marriage subplot, and particularly free of most of the things that make science fiction interesting.

18th century France (and the according revolution) meet a post-apocalyptic world in Sharon Cameron’s YA homage to The Scarlet Pimpernel. Collage by Pippin Hart. Credits in this post.

After the world ends, in Sharon Cameron’s 2015 dystopia, Rook, strikingly little changes. After technology is disrupted, and life is thrown into disrepair, hundreds of years pass, and eventually, France and Britain enter into their late 18th-century forms, so that Cameron can set her YA adventure novel amidst a strikingly familiar French Revolution, complete with an arranged marriage subplot, and particularly free of most of the things that make science fiction interesting.

As far as dystopias go, Rook is an interesting case––it’s a far-future work of speculative fiction that desperately wants to be a work of historical fiction, and likewise, the real nature of the setting is easy to forget. The fact that this is post-apocalyptic Earth and not the literal, actual 1700s is something Cameron rarely deigns to remind you of, what, with her novel’s engagement parties and liberal guillotine usage and total lack of technology. Some characters even charmingly trade in relics from the present day, but without breadth, care, or a sense of loss, the “Nintendo” logo engraved in an ancient piece of plastic in a prized collection is less an element of world-building and more a Pixar-style Easter egg. Her characters don’t even have access to firearms, a state of affairs behind the period she’s trying to emulate, by the decree of a post-apocalyptic non-government with no objectives, no structure, and no historical context.

Paris, now “The Sunken City” in Cameron’s novel, has a vaguely-defined upper class, but no royalty to speak of, and a municipal agenda consisting mostly of public executions of enemies of the state. There’s no concrete reason presented in the book for mobs of the citizenry to go about killing merchant families, no economic downturn or ongoing abuse of power by the rich to set this in motion, or, at least, none that sticks. Key details in this book, buried as they are under long, repetitive, over-explanatory narration, are easy to miss.

At the helm of this guillotine-happy government’s busy execution schedule is Albert LeBlanc, an absolute bloodhound of a police chief. Though he’s decidedly not the main character, he does receive an excess of page time, through Cameron’s decision to splice her novel with frequent, movie-like intercutting. This is a surprising investment, but it very nearly pays off. Cameron zooms in on her cold, calculating villain to reveal someone with even less reason and strategy than it seems, a man slavishly devoted to a goddess of fate, with such irrational fervor that it replaces ideology entirely. The thrill of the chase, however, is absent: LeBlanc isn’t competent enough to offer a real threat, and his character doesn’t expose the flaws in Rook‘s young, plucky leads as it’s supposed to. They spend the entire story plotting a daring escapade to snatch prisoners from under his nose, and the affair proves simple, and woefully easy.

The heroes go relatively untested the whole way through, denied a wider context, and thus, a meaningful cause to fight for.

Usually, in YA, when the cocky anti-hero appears, even in works that spare every expense in developing their ensemble, he gets taken down, if only a single peg, if only half a peg, if only because he is forced into humility because of a romantic subplot.

Enter René Hasard, a blunt, smirking mischief-maker, the unwanted fiancé offered to the main character Sophia Bellamy as a last-ditch effort to save her family from financial ruin. The romance that unexpectedly (“unexpectedly”) blooms between them receives the most careful and dedicated attention of any plot in the novel, but it still wavers inexplicably between complete faith and absolute distrust. Whenever things are quiet on the political intrigue front, some doubt regarding his past comes to the fray. Romantic scenes are well-written at times, but on the whole, the romance’s development is badly structured: the more Cameron keeps teasing at some dark secret, the less satisfying it is when it comes time for the happy ending, and the promise of conflict completely falls away.

Sophie also happens to be the victim of an unfortunate love polygon. Her childhood friend, Spear Hammond, is the blunt point of the love triangle. He goes about wooing her with little awareness of her actual wants, and an extremely combative attitude towards René, which puts the novel in a unique position to really interrogate those impulses, poke at them, make fun of them, maybe. The classic childhood-friend-to-lover archetype often does all these things to the female protagonist and gets no flack, from her or from the narrative, but Rook seemed poised to call Spear and his patronizing instincts into question. But his depiction, lacking in complexity and suddenly ending with a bitter smack of self-sacrifice, is probably the book’s greatest wasted opportunity. He’s of an awkward, in-between status, jumping between tolerable and reprehensible in a way that does the novel no favors. Sure, he shows a hint of having layers, but Rook doesn’t know how to handle them.

It doesn’t know how to handle Sophia, either. Like many familiar YA characters, Spear is obnoxious masculinity criticized only very shallowly. Sophia, like a fair share of teen heroines, has limited and largely superficial demonstrations of strength that have mostly to do with weaponry, but evaporate as soon as she’s really in trouble, and requires her bickering love vertices to rescue her.

Rook, even as a work of suspense, or romance, is lacking. Considering its world-building, almost everything is squandered. It isn’t a re-imagination or a re-invention of history. It’s history repeated, to underwhelming and distilled effect.

‘The Shadows Between Us’ A Villain Romance That Can’t Quite Commit

The Shadows Between Us reads like the very best of Archive of Our Own’s enemies-to-lovers tag, what, with its deeply significant material gestures and infuriating restraint. Levenseller doesn’t even toss Alessandra a kiss scene until both she and her love interest are thoroughly steeped in denial.

Whatever comes after, The Shadows Between Us takes the cake for a phenomenal first line.

“They’ve never found the body of the first and only boy who broke my heart,” the inimitable Alessandra Stathos tells us on page one, unsheathing her gilded dagger of wickedness from the get-go.

Then comes the final nail in the makeshift coffin, the sign that we are about to read the shameless first-person account of a stylish evildoer. Alessandra’s next line: “And they never will.”

After a long YA tradition of rejecting the dark side of the love triangle, to mixed effect, Levenseller does away with the safe option immediately. The Shadows Between Us is entirely free of moralizing Macbeth-style consequences, and the Right Thing in any form, instead preferring to see its main character plot murders, practice tyranny, and ruin reputations in peace.

In a way, it’s liberating.

The Shadows Between Us is fun in a way plenty of YA titles can never be. It doesn’t care a whit what you think about it, and in the meantime engages in girlish delight as Alessandra’s diabolical pieces fall into place. As she goes about seducing the secretive and closely-guarded Shadow King, fully intending to kill him, she doesn’t begin to question her choices because of an epiphany––by all metrics, Levenseller has written a heroine who is epiphany-proof––she simply begins to suspect that the Shadow King likes the way she thinks and is quite possibly unbothered by her body count.

We don’t see much of the kingdom Alessandra’s looking to rule with an iron fist––and indeed, the less the better––but this riotous and raucous 300-page power-play has everything it needs to make for a good time, and squeezes in some levity, light subplots, and fluff besides.

Where this devil-may-care angle gets messy, though, is this villain romp’s attempt to have its own villains. The courtesans (locked tight in a competition with our had over who gets to slay the Shadow King first), feature little enough to be throwaways, and yet, pitifully, aren’t.

The aggressor’s motives are shallow, petty, and profoundly uninteresting, but what really rings false about this mutinous plot is how eagerly Levenseller allows her characters to slip into condemnation. Yes, the Shadow King and Alessandra have discovered a clandestine plot against his life, but, well, you know.

They react indignantly to this admittedly short-lived threat, where Levenseller could have probably made a much sounder character choice if she had given them the bandwidth to coolly acknowledge their rivals’ wants as tandem to their own, before putting out the fire without a second thought.

The Shadows Between Us would have been perfectly structurally sound in the third act without this unnecessary extra pound of intrigue (and soap-operatic last twenty pages) ha the apex just focused on romantic resolution. But Levenseller isn’t quite faithful enough in her pair’s morally grey status to give them a truly selfish, unheroic conclusion. Instead, someone’s life has to be at risk, and the story of these cruel, calculating main characters has to end with a good deed.

To Levenseller’s credit, the truly well-crafted plot doesn’t go neglected as her story stretches to accommodate this one. She somehow manages to make 300 pages crackle like a slow burn, giving these sparring forces reasons to love each other, and every better instinct to turn away.

When the lead-up is this faithful to the characters, it doesn’t matter that it seems like the entire world conspires to get the two of the alone in a room, or that all the court drama Levenseller writes has to quiet for a moment so her leads can bicker. Romance in fast-paced fantasy stories can often feel obligatory, but instead, everything else feels that way, because the substance of The Shadows Between Us isn’t undermined by a kissing interlude.

The romance is the substance. It reads like the very best of Archive of Our Own’s enemies-to-lovers tag, what, with its deeply significant material gestures, and infuriating restraint. Levenseller doesn’t even throw Alessandra a kiss until both she and her love interest are thoroughly steeped in denial. The Shadows Between Us as a romance far exceeds it as anything else, and in fact its “YA fantasy” label may even do it a disservice. To some degree, what Barnes and Noble calls “YA fantasy and adventure” is sort of expected to deliver on conflict that isn’t about characters and their feelings on one another, so The Shadows Between Us has to chip in on an assassination/secret identity plot at the very end in order to avoid being minimized. So it goes.

When the book isn’t busy with its love story, or its B-villains, it takes some time to expand the lives of Alessandra’s much-tamer friends, giving them their own romantic exploits and personal scruples to overcome. Levenseller goes all in with these side stories to satisfying effect, giving an element that doesn’t usually have much weight a clear distinction of importance. This is where the real value of her story lies, in things that make you giddy to witness, in the small exploits that make for good fluff.

It isn’t flawless, but there’s undoubtedly merit of some kind in a book that flies by in a day.

‘The Alchemist’ Unconvincingly Preaches The Hustle

“The boy’s name was Santiago,” Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist begins. Once we are introduced to Santiago, his name is never spoken again. Coelho writes in the style of an extended fairy tale, something rustic and ancient and beyond what a modern reader would ask of an entertaining book, as he sends “the boy” off to distant lands to meet other nameless figures, each of whom carries a kernel of wisdom that the story cracks apart, inspects and interprets.

Coelho, in telling this story like it came from a bygone age and saw endless re-tellings, sacrifices a few luxuries as a matter of style. The characters speak exactly their intentions at every turn, with no delineation between them, every scene has a moral, and Coelho’s writing (or, possibly, Clarke’s translation) is sterilized of any passion.

Yes, let’s just get that out of the way––The Alchemist is less wide-eyed fairy tale and more bleary-eyed lecture. Coelho couldn’t have written something heavier-handed if he opted to pound out a self-help book instead.

But, however large a caveat they may have been, the sacrifices he makes to evoke the fable might have been worth it of only there were a better substance at the fable’s core.

There is a very real reason “follow your dreams” is the territory of wall décor, and the most condescending advice any young adult could receive. Far from the sources of friction Coelho offers––that we feel guilty about pursuing our calling, that we are derailed by love, that we are afraid something will stop us––the real reason The Alchemist‘s invocation of a Personal Legend and everyone’s duty to follow it lands with a dull thud has more to do with how boring an idea it is and less to do with the cowering Everyone Else is supposedly doing as the Enlightened conduct their restless pursuit of the stuff of dreams.

All things considered, Santiago lacks a truly compelling Personal Legend, which might have been the one missing piece enough to conceal all the holes “follow your dreams” ignores. Coelho may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater when he ditched fully-realized characters for plain, folk-tale ones. If Santiago had something more to fight for than a treasure he was told to pursue by a fortune teller, there would be more value in his trying to pursue it. Coelho can’t fully make the case for Personal Legends if the Personal Legend he decides to tell shuffles a pliant dreamer from place to place, no conviction anywhere in sight.

Coelho doesn’t make much of his other characters, either. They’re not exactly meant to be the powerful forces at odds in a tightly-wrung character drama, but voicing the ends of the story gets old in 12-page transcriptions of fairy tales––here it drags for a hundred pages, as Coelho pushes a leading man with not much will to do anything through a landscape of vast oversimplifications of human beings. He doesn’t even take the opportunity to draw their broad strokes wildly, and make them two-dimensional, but vibrant. They’re just proxies. Effigies. Props.

“To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation” doesn’t just ignore the very real obligations our main character happens not to have; it also renders the world that exists in The Alchemist a pale and wanting imitation of itself. When things are as simple as listening to your heart and following the signs, where is the richness that exists outside the path you feel you are ordained to have? Where are the complexities of other lives? Where’s the flavor? Where’s the conflict? In this novel, it is made simple: those other things just don’t exist.

There are moments, though, when The Alchemist doesn’t try to stretch this narrow mission over the scope of all human life, and in those moments, Coelho leans in to the parts of his story he seems determined not to focus on, from the details of magic to its more whimsical use as a means for inanimate things to be brought to life.

At one point, Santiago has a very frank conversation with his own heart, and here, it doesn’t read like its sober admissions are the fable’s robotic workings, or that this scene exists to further a moral with no real weight. If Santiago had a reason to seek this treasure; if the mechanics of alchemy had a reason to make an appearance, the gentle, wise things this book sometimes has to say about fear and wonder might ring humbler, and perhaps even true.

Maybe The Alchemist wasn’t meant to be the literary exercise that it is. Maybe a novel with impassioned characters, an eye for magic, and more adventurous leanings is hiding somewhere deep within this tired parable. Maybe, in it, Santiago even chases the same Personal Legend, only his feelings on the matter have a bit more behind them, and no one tells him about the pyramids in order to send him searching for them. All he has is a vague, painful feeling in his chest, which––if the book’s ideas were really close to life, is all most of us have.

The version that we’re stuck with being what it is, however, The Alchemist has a lot to tell us about how dogged individualism can neglect those who adhere to it, simplify the world around us, and outsmart us in the end. All these lessons come from a book that won’t stop telling us to follow our dreams. They come because the more you hear the same tune, the more you notice what it is missing.