Gray Matters by John Gastil
Cosmic Egg Books, pb, £8.59
Reviewed by Matt Adcock
Getting old isn’t much fun – I’m feeling it as I hit the half-century mark – ageing begins to catch up with you in all sorts of ways, like I can walk into a room and totally forget why I even came in there… So what then can we do to help our ageing demographic live sustainable and independent lives for as long as possible? How might integrated tech be harnessed to enhance the lives of those who need reminders to buy food and take showers? (I’m not quite there yet)…
Welcome to John Gastil’s Gray Matters – a near-future tale where things around us are at once familiar and alternative. Trump still won but then got beaten (by a female, though). The internet has been supercharged and is now referred to as ‘The Loop’ using advanced linked algorithms to understand people’s interests and directly feeds relevant information. A new charismatic Guru has emerged who believes that old people who have dementia are actually trying to message us things from the future; surely no one’s going to take him seriously? Meanwhile, the poor are getting poorer, and big technology is the only real growth area.
The main protagonist of this story is a likeable dude named Charlie Sanders. He’s a data analyst for the titular tech company Gray Matters. He has a vested interest in trying their tech on his father, who is succumbing to Alzheimer’s. The folk at Gray Matters are led by their eccentric CEO Alice and their ‘smart’ products are the ones called upon by the great and the good to actively help ageing people suffering from degenerative conditions. The bestselling Walker Talker combines a mobility device with a state-of-the-art Loop linked device that can communicate messages with the user. It all but replaces their phones (called zunes here), learns their routines and allows both the user and their family to set reminder messages for them. It’s all very convincing as a potential solution for those whose faculties, both mentally and physically, are wearing down, but what safeguards are there that it can’t be hacked or used to try and exert ‘control’ over the user. What starts out as helpful advice from well-meaning humans could end indirect instructions and brainwashing – from those with an agenda or even a rogue artificial intelligence!?
Gastil writes in an engaging manner, you can feel him channelling his experience as a political consultant, and that lends the quite in-depth politics woven into the plot a sense of authenticity. There is a sense of fun throughout, too, which extends to genius Easter egg back cover quote which reads: ‘Nothing in this book should alarm you. I have a firm grip on all the information you need and will provide it to you as required. Go back to work.” – It’s credited to The Loop, a decentralized autonomous AI.
As the plot ratchets up, there are serious repercussions for many of the characters – as devious plans are uncovered, and the ‘chipping’ of humans, which so many anti-vaxxers are concerned about, even makes an appearance. I won’t divulge any spoilers here, though, as Gray Matters is definitely a trip into the near future worth taking.
It is not easy to make characters relatable. It’s a subtle art that sinks too many books even when they have interesting premises. The good news here is that I couldn’t help but identify with one of Charlie’s co-workers, a wild-living maverick named Jack, who uses the company’s tech to keep his life in order. He describes both himself and his CEO, Alice, as ‘Demi-humans’ – special in ways that the mere mortals around them do not understand, which is a great concept. And one that I’ll remember for some time to come – set a reminder on my smart device so I can…
I’ll be keeping my eyes out for a real-world product like the revolutionary Gray Matters ‘Elder Compass’.
There is room for some intercontinental romance, guerrilla good deeding and a spike of danger mixed into this tale of how corporate entities will influence our agency and humanity through their tech. Gastil packs in lots of concepts that will have you pondering the rights, wrongs and sheer possibilities of where we let technology lead us. Do yourself a favour and check out Gray Matters – it’s one possible road map into a very uncertain future.