Review: Connect by Julian Gough

"Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lives."

Mary Shelley, who wrote the above in a diary entry in 1815, may not be the first person you think of when you start reading Julian Gough's new novel Connect. You might instead think of Philip K Dick and his protagonists; writers and characters that more specifically explore the advances of future tech and their implications. But to my mind, it's Mary Shelley that forms the inspiration for Gough's protagonist Naomi Chiang, and it's Frankenstein that Connect most shares its DNA with. 

Frankenstein is the prototypical story of creation; of a person attempting to "infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at [his] feet." Victor Frankenstein brings his creature to life then has to face the consequences of that action, to face parenthood without a manual, to look at the destructive side of creation and respond to it emotionally. The book is a cautionary tale: don't mess with what we don't yet understand. 

Connect, then, is a tech-saturated near-future thriller version of this particular tale. Set in Nevada, in a time not far beyond our own, the story follows Naomi Chiang, a biologist, and her precocious but socially-challenged son Colt. While Naomi researches how natural biological methods might be employed to help regrow human limbs, Colt is almost entirely engaged in virtual reality; in a gameworld in which he is God. A ludicrously talented coder, Colt is building a universe around him that suits him more than "crapworld", the reality that he struggles to make sense of. Both he and his mother avoid Colt's father, Ryan, who works in the department of defence and is so committed to his country and to a skewed, nationalistic understanding of "freedom" that he will sacrifice almost anything to "protect" it. Ryan is a man so militaristic that he named his child after a gun. 

So what does this have to do with a novel that turns 200 this year? People often forget that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was pregnant—and that she had already suffered the birth and death of one child while her partner, Percy Shelley, was sleeping with her step-sister, the hilariously named Claire Clairmont. Mary Shelley lived through the experience of creation and loss and guilt and helplessness and transformed it into one of the greatest novels ever written . Though the doctor may have been male, Frankenstein is a female story through and through. 

In Connect, Julian Gough has flipped the story of Frankenstein back to the women. Naomi is in the business of infusing human life with the newest technologies, and her hand is constantly being forced by Colt. Like Shelley, Naomi's life is endlessly complicated by an absolute dick of a partner (or in Naomi's case, former partner) and she too is struggling to advance her own career while facing sexism at every turn and dealing with a child whose life is spiralling out of her control. 

Anyone who has read Julian Gough's work will know that such parallels are not coincidental; neither are the references to Christian mythology, or the very clear subversion of the near-future trope in which technology has grown out of control. The tech in Connect is incredibly useful and practical; there are fridges that speak, entire systems that control your house and its environment to your every whim, and Fitbit-style devices that let you keep track of your childrens' safety by having their heart rate played on your wrist. There's no doubt in my mind that this is a conscious choice, because, as the novel tells us, it is not technology that is the threat in the real world; it is people, and the way they choose to use technological advances. 

Connect runs on the very thin line between Hollywood-style thriller and a pastiche of a Hollywood thriller. Without wanting to give any spoilers, there's one particular scene where "Mother nature's pocket" is employed in a way that can only signal parody, yet the following plotpoint is incredibly satisfying in the same way that Valerie Solanas's SCUM Manifesto is incredibly satisfying. There's a subplot about libido-repressing medication and the power of female sexuality that starts off promising a lot but gives way to the main thriller-narrative, but the fact that I wanted to read more about the former probably says more about me as a reader than Gough as a writer. 

Yet the connection that Gough writes about is not just a connection between people; it's the intersection of machines and humanity, of desire and hatred, of individuality and collective existence. There's a belief in the scientific community that if we can connect quantum mechanics with general relativity then we will finally have a complete theory of the universe, and while Gough might not say as much in this novel, this idea is never far away in what is inarguably a book that attempts to explore a number of high concepts in a very accessible way.

The alternative title of Frankenstein was The Modern Prometheus, and by the end of Connect, it's hard to say which of the characters this refers to the most—or whether it's we, as a society, who are playing with the fire of the gods.