When novelist Joanna Kavenna was recently asked what subject she found most challenging to write about, she answered: “General Reality. What is it? Who decides? Is it just the physical things we can see and touch? Atoms, no atoms? Thoughts only when they become deeds? Whose thoughts? (Whose deeds?)” Her newest novel, “Zed,” doesn’t answer these questions, but rather asks them over and over again, until what begins as a familiar addition to the dystopian or techno-horror genres becomes far stranger and more appealing.

There are notes of both “Catch-22” and “1984” in “Zed,” although where the first two focus on government control and endless war, the latter centers on government control and a technocratic corporation called Beetle. By 2023, Beetle, founded by Guy Matthias, has become so integral to the smooth running of Western society that it’s basically taken over, using predictive algorithms not only to help people shop for the right things but also to arrest them for future crimes. The “Custodians Program” tracks everyone through their BeetleBands — obligatory smartwatches without which people are “unverified” and thus uninsurable and virtually unemployable — as well as various smart appliances, self-driving taxi fleets and ubiquitous cameras. Beetle is, of course, committed to maintaining a fair and free democratic society with plenty of choices for everyone. In fact, when meeting with Beetle’s Chinese counterpart, Baoguan, Guy Matthias becomes upset about how far ahead Baoguan’s AI predictive technology is, especially because “the Chinese intended, with these sorts of protocols, to control their populations, rather than merely inspiring them to make more fulfilling choices, for themselves and wider society.”

This kind of ironic statement is par for the course among Kavenna’s often humorous descriptions. Additionally, Very Intelligent Personal Assistants (or Veeps) have names like Scrace Dickens and Little Dorrit; a simplified version of speech that eliminates the messiness of nuance by stripping away superfluous words is called Bespoke; and virtual reality is marketed by Beetle as Real Virtuality. But Kavenna’s cleverness doesn’t come at the expense of the book’s depth (and I was impressed at her restraint, for example, in managing to avoid the term “Beetlemania”). Rather, her wit helps ease readers into what becomes a novel of ideas.

The story begins when an ordinary man named George Mann does something utterly unpredictable: He kills his wife and children, before wandering along the Thames and falling asleep on a bench. None of the algorithms predicted this, and it’s a PR nightmare for Beetle, which is supposed to prevent such unpleasantness. The mess is compounded when a robotic cop shoots Lionel Bigman, an innocent bystander and military veteran who happened to be sitting at a table recently vacated by George Mann. Of course, Beetle claims that Bigman intended to be killed, which means the “robohacks” in the media report the murder as “another poor civilian [committing] suicide by droid.”

As more events, alternately violent and seemingly meaningless, unfold beyond the predictive abilities of any algorithm, Beetle’s employees begin to label such events as “category Zed.” The company tries to explain that Zed events don’t count, because they weren’t predicted, and thus, obviously, were impossible to predict, which means that Beetle isn’t really at fault for anything, even if its own machines are out there shooting people, because the fault belongs to people getting shot for being unpredictable. Zed, in other words, is a way to explain that human beings don’t always make sense.

For all the insights we have into human behavior through psychology and science and algorithms, we are not machines. George Mann’s desire to kill his wife and sons rather than let them keep living in what he saw as a doomed world makes no more sense than Guy Matthias suppressing the free press while convincing himself that he believes in democratic ideals and equality. We can no more easily explain the depths at which we feel the loss of a loved one or the lengths we’ll go to fight for freedom. Definitive answers are dangerous, “Zed” suggests; but in asking the questions, perhaps, we come to understand something about being messy, uncertain and human.

Ilana Masad’s debut novel, “All My Mother’s Lovers,” will be released in May. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Paris Review, among other publications.


By Joanna Kavenna

Doubleday. 352 pp. $27.95