Supercute Futures by Martin Millar

Piatkus, 2018, 232 p. Review first published in Interzone 277, Sep-Oct 2018.

Welcome to the realm of Mox and Mitsu, stars of the Supercute Show, the world’s most popular entertainment. Starting as teenage girls in a bedroom in London with only an iPhone and a collection of cuddly toys, using their own skills, software assistance and enhanced bodies – only thirty percent of their brains is still organic, about the only original body parts left – they have parlayed their following into the mammoth Supercute Enterprises, one of the world’s top nineteen conglomerates, with fingers in every pie (including weapons production) but particularly desalination. Their trade-marks are multi – but never clashing – colours, always having twelve centimetres of skin showing between their skirts/shorts and stockings (they are not unaware of older male followers) and Big Colour Super V-hair. Not color, note. Mox insists. Civilisation may be having a difficult time but it’s not yet ended. The Supercute Show can be accessed via what reads like “normal” television but also through Supercute space, in effect a virtual reality zone, a kaleidoscopic cyberspace, entry to which is mediated through purchases and brand enthusiasm.

The outside world is in the wake of an unspecified set of disasters alluded to but not described in the text. Large areas lie derelict and deserted at best, irradiated at worst, with government regulation of the C19 virtually non-existent and its members subject to fierce competition. “‘When you get to a certain size you can’t stop.’” Investors want growth. If you stand still you get swallowed up. Hence Mox and Mitsu are there to be shot at.

Enter Moe Bennie at Lark 3 Media with his offer to Supercute’s desalination rivals RK Enviro. He plans to exploit a flaw in Mox’s and Mitsu’s android Artificial Intelligence Forecast Unit, Aifu, to gain control of the company’s shares and consign Mox and Mitsu to oblivion. Literally. Members of the C19 deploy lethal force vigorously to protect their interests. Premises are guarded by “ag-scans” which detect hostile intent.

It does then seem a little odd that Millar puts into Bennie’s mouth the thought, “‘Most people don’t care about the super-rich. They’re struggling through life, worrying how they’re going to pay the rent while politicians tell them it’s time to make sacrifices. Meanwhile some guy on a yacht had just made 100 million with his AI investment software. The same day my first hedge fund reached ten billion, the government cut child benefit in half.’” The text offers no other trace of conscience on his part. Rather the opposite.

Not that Mox and Mitsu are innocent themselves. As things progress we learn more about how their success was achieved, how much potentially reputation damaging information they have suppressed. Their rise was in part propelled by confrontationalism, until their edge was blunted by the necessity to placate advertisers, their educational intent watered down so as not to baffle consumers unduly. Happy Little Science Pixie, anyone? In this, Millar’s dystopia is depressingly familiar.

Bennie’s strategy begins to succeed and the Supercute Show falls off air but he has reckoned without Mox and Mitsu’s determination and their devoted followers. Two of these, Amowie in Igboland and Raquel in South America, all but pre-teenagers, are the most engaging and (a little conveniently?) resourceful characters in the book.

The final confrontation – in shoot-em-up style – is enabled by a pair of time-limited Mox and Mitsu clones quickly computer-printed in a back-street laboratory.

The comparison to Vonnegut which is blazoned on the back cover is to my mind totally misplaced and does Millar no favours. There is a certain tonal similarity but in matters of execution Millar falls way behind, especially as regards information dumping. It is obtrusive enough elsewhere but it sometimes appears that the only purpose of a Mox and Mitsu conversation is so that a piece of background can follow immediately. Plus no matter how true it is I don’t recall a Vonnegut protagonist ever displaying cynicism of the order of, “‘As for confidence. If you don’t have enough you can fake it…. tell the world it’s lucky to have you … after you’ve faked it for a while, you’ll start to believe it.’” He was more for the underdog.

Supercute Futures isn’t pretending to be high art nor is it a rigorous exposure of corporate (lack of) ethics. It’s a bit too broad brush for that and its intention different. But if you don’t take it too seriously, it’s a pleasant enough ride.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- (I stopped counting the number of times a corporate entity in this book was granted a plural verb form; such an organisation is a singular concern.) Otherwise; a missing end quote mark, desalinisation (innumerable instances, the word is desalination,) “Mox and Mitsu’s” (strictly Mox’s and Mitsu’s but they are frequently treated as a single unit linguistically here,) “Ms Mason’s” (Ms Mason,) neeed (need,) fender (civilisation hasn’t ended, remember: it’s bumper,) “‘his board aren’t going to abandon the deal’” (his board isn’t,) “‘I have to go to’” (I have to go.) “Neither were squeamish” (neither was squeamish.) “Soot in the stratosphere had severely damaged the ozone layer.” (I doubt it would. In addition the text following that sentence gives the impression the ozone layer prevents Earth overheating. It doesn’t, it blocks ultra-violet, not infra-red radiation,) “turbulence in the ionosphere affects satellite communications” (really?) “said one of the policeman” (policemen,) “in the celling” (ceiling,) anesthetised (anaesthetised, or better still anæsthetised.) “Once Ishikawa had lowered their radiation to manageable levels” (that’s some jump in medical technology to be able to do that.)

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