Joanna Kavenna

January 17, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Joanna Kavenna's novel Zed. Kavenna has written for The New York Review of Books, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, The London Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is the author of several critically acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Ice Museum, Inglorious, and Come to the Edge. She has held the Alistair Horne Fellowship at St Antony’s College Oxford and the Harper-Wood at St John’s College Cambridge.

At 2:23 am the BeetleInsight alarm system went off. This indicated a threat to national security. Various people were instantly informed and among them was Douglas Varley, who was woken by his BeetleBand saying “Scrace Dickens.”

Still mired in sleep, Varley heard this as “Disgrace” and leaped out of bed, hoping thereby to avert this calamity, but then Scrace Dickens said: “Varley, it’s one of yours.”

“What’s one of mine?”

“You didn’t hear yet?”

“No, I was asleep until five seconds ago.”

Scrace Dickens, a Very Intelligent Personal Assistant who never slept, paused for a moment to process and discard this irrelevant information. “So, it seems you have not yet read the initial reports?” he said, eventually.

“It seems so,” said Varley.

Varley was 34, his blond hair streaked with gray, a genetic trait he derived from his mother. He was tall and had once been shy, but now lacked the time for such nuances. He had the practically identical background of most senior Beetle employees, including a gilded academic career at an Ivy League university and a fundamental obsession with chess and beer. This was Beetle CEO Guy Matthias’s background as well, though Guy had dropped out in his third year at Stanford because his degree (in artificial intelligence) was insufficiently challenging. Varley had worked for Beetle in the US for the past decade, in charge of lifechain analysis and troubleshooting. This meant he was constantly fending off potential or actual disasters. He  had recently been posted  to London because the UK had the most advanced benign regulatory environment in the world, and Beetle was the world leader in benign regulatory environments.

“Do you want me to summarize everything for you?” said Scrace Dickens, kindly.

Varley generally refused offers of summaries from his Very Intelligent Personal Assistant (also known as a Veep) to maintain the illusion of autonomy, but this morning his head ached, he had drunk a little too much wine the previous night, as doubtless his BeetleBand had registered, and he noted with some alarm that his hands were trembling.

“All right, thanks,” he said ungratefully.

Within a few minutes, Varley had gained a clear picture of the case. His case. The previous day, George Mann—45, tall, and slightly overweight, a partner at AHTCH (a globally recognized brand for flow-control valve technology and engineering innovation), father of two boys, husband to Margaret Collins, a lawyer—had left his office on the 15th floor of the Gherkin and walked along the corridor, saying a brisk and distracted goodnight to his Very Intelligent Personal Assistant, Bob Sykes. He had passed another colleague in the corridor and nodded to him. It was 18:08 and therefore too early for George Mann to leave work. This was logged by Bob Sykes and Mann’s predictive algorithms were realigned, including his projected retirement age, monthly health insurance payments, and bonus prospects. Indeed, a beautiful ripple passed through all the predictive algorithms as they were adjusted accordingly.

After leaving the main lobby of the Gherkin, George Mann seemed to be heading in the direction of the tube, as would have been usual. However, when he reached the station he did not descend, but continued toward the river. He entered the Three Tuns pub at 18:22. There, he sat in a corner, and drank seven whiskies and three bottles of wine over the next six hours. He didn’t speak to anyone, except to order drinks at the bar. The pub was very busy at that time of day, and at one point George Mann was asked if he would mind if someone used the chair to his left. He did not reply, but this was understandable because there was a great deal of noise, and the person shrugged and took the chair anyway. Shortly after midnight, George Mann asked his BeetleBand to order him a car, which was duly requested from Mercury and appeared within minutes. The in-car operating system had no record of Mann saying anything at all. In line with usual Beetle Electrical Company protocols, the Very Intelligent Automated Driving System (VIADS) had simply wished Mann a good evening as he departed, but Mann had not replied. This was also quite usual—lots of people ignored such conversational forays, and Mann had already requested location Home by BeetleBand—this location being a two-up two-down Victorian terrace in a small square by Kennington tube, overlooked by glass-and-steel edifices. Mann arrived home at 00:47, let himself in, and walked to the kitchen. The fridge said: “Good evening, George, you’re back late this fine evening!” Ignoring this, Mann took the sharpest knife from a knife block and went upstairs to his bedroom where his wife, Margaret, was asleep. Mann smothered her with a pillow and slit her throat. After this, he walked to his 14-year-old son Tom’s room and smothered him as well, then stabbed the boy four times in the heart, and then walked into the next room and did the same to his 11-year-old son, William.

At this point the predictive algorithms crashed.

“Based on previous activities,” said Little Dorritt, “George Mann will finish his breakfast and then commit another serious crime.”

Mann dropped the knife on the floor of William’s room, left his family bleeding to death, and walked out of the house. By the time the police and ambulances arrived, Margaret, Tom, and William were dead.

“Where did Mann go after that?” said Varley, feeling sick.

“At 2:03 am Mann threw his BeetlePad in the river,” said Scrace Dickens. “Then he walked along the river, heading east.”

“But his interface implant is still working?”

“He doesn’t have one.”

“The Argus footage?” asked Varley.

“Of course,” said Scrace Dickens, sounding slightly offended.

Varley excused himself for a moment and went to the bathroom. There, he threw up copiously in the sink. This was disgusting and not cathartic at all, as he briefly hoped. He groaned and said, “For fuck’s sake,” then imagined Scrace Dickens logging this as well. It wasn’t Scrace Dickens’s fault—the record was instantaneous. Second by second, even microsecond by microsecond. He washed his face, cleaned his teeth. His clothes had started vibrating, but that was superfluous. He said, “Stop,” and they stopped. He said, “I need to speak to Eloise Jayne,” and Scrace Dickens said, “Of course,” again, as if this were a redundant request. In a sense it was, because Scrace Dickens operated to the most beautiful and sophisticated algorithms and understood a crucial truth: at every moment Varley would choose a path, and the path of greatest probability was the most probable choice. In the circumstances it was pretty much inevitable that he would choose to speak to Eloise.

What were the other paths? Varley wondered, as he waited for her to answer. To not speak to Eloise, to go back to bed, to lie there groaning, to have a breakdown, to leave his own job, and then he might even hurl himself off Blackfriars Bridge, into the murky depths beneath! They were all paths. He could pick up a gun and shoot himself, except he didn’t have a gun. Therefore, Scrace Dickens had not considered this path of probability.  Also, it was absurd to suggest that Scrace Dickens considered anything, in the ordinary sense, because he assessed  and rejected available probabilities so swiftly. The analogy to human thought was wholly inappropriate. Yet Varley couldn’t think of another analogy so he used it anyway.


In a glass-and-steel apartment in the Shard, the penthouse beyond all other penthouses, was Guy Matthias, Beetle CEO, a fit, robust, 42-year-old man, in the prime of his life yet an urgent addict to longevity treatments, with his cryogenic amulet hanging round his neck. He invested a large percentage of his wealth in shell-shedding research; his hope was that body–body consciousness transfer would become credible before it was too late—for him and those he loved. His hair was expensively dyed, straight back to his original black. Recent skin treatments (this was the euphemism Guy preferred) had made an enormous difference to his face; indeed, he had recently contemplated wiping a decade off his age, and updating the whole of Real Virtuality. This was an ongoing project; Guy needed to test the potential outcomes more thoroughly. He had been awake for some time and had completed his toothbrush test—the result sent to his doctor for immediate analysis, using the in-house Off the Record System (OTR)—and performed his morning yoga satsang. At this point, Sarah Coates, his Veep, conveyed the information about George Mann. Guy’s immediate response was to request that Douglas Varley should be observed more closely in turn. Sarah Coates passed on this request to the relevant people at BeetleInnerSight. Then Guy Matthias OTR-ed his wife, Elska, who had asked him for a divorce the night before. She had been sleeping apart from him for two months now, since he set his Veep to individual voice recognition only. Guy had been obliged to do this because Elska had bothered Sarah Coates all the time, requesting information about Guy’s meetings and even transcripts of his OTR-calls. This made it impossible for Sarah Coates to do her job efficiently. Elska had asked him to remove the voice recognition limitation, or to add her voice as well, and Guy had asked her to trust him, and she had refused to trust him, and now she wanted a divorce. His OTR was brief but conciliatory and he advised her, once again, to think of the children. Guy didn’t really have time to consider this further, because he had to OTR Lydia Walker, 23, a bright young colleague he was mentoring, whom he was about to take with him to New York. He had suggested to Lydia that she might act as his human assistant on a new shell-shedding research project. Together they would radically transform and enhance civilization, he explained. Lydia said she was really grateful for the opportunity. Thanks so much! When could they leave?!

“My Veep will send you the travel plans,” OTR-ed Guy Matthias.

“Lots of very exciting things to discuss. We need to progress with this asap!”

Eloise still didn’t want a Veep. They made her feel sad—these assiduous entities with their heads at uncomfortable angles.

“Cool!” said Lydia, adding an emoticon of a rabbit hopping for joy. This disappointed Guy Matthias. To ensure his next trip to the States was not a total waste of time, he OTR-ed Gracie and Nicki, two other bright young mentees of his, to invite them to discuss exciting new research projects in NYC as well. After this, Guy drank some coffee.


On the other side of the city was a high-rise block, with special panels to repel sunlight and other special panels to absorb sunlight, the entire block capturing or reflecting the sun depending on its energy and heating needs. The windows also reflected the towers of Canary Wharf and were darkened every couple of minutes by the shadows of airplanes gliding into City Airport. This was the headquarters of the National Anti-Terrorism and Security Office, with the acronym NATSO—which no one much liked. You entered this building via an entrance lobby, in which an embodied Veep manned the reception. Or not quite manned, rather, Veeped. This was Phoebe Haversham and she tilted her head when you spoke to her, at an angle just too acute to be natural. This  was a minor flaw in the design but otherwise the Veep was incredibly realistic. Her skin appeared to be real, and moved with the flexibility of real skin, except that it crinkled and bagged a little around the neck, so the Veep looked young in places and old in others. She had an athletic physique and wore an appealing gray dress, which hugged her curves without revealing too much flesh, which wasn’t really flesh anyway.

Eloise Jayne worked in the highest levels of NATSO, and her desk was positioned in an open-plan area outside Commissioner Morgan Newton’s office. She was a tall, muscular woman of 35, with cropped blond hair. She might have only a decade or so remaining, according to the lifechain, because of the premature deaths of her parents and several other close relatives. This dolorous prediction had caused her to become exceptionally determined, and her ascent had been swift. The other person, or entity, who worked in this open-plan area was Little Dorritt, Newton’s Veep, who was not embodied and resided in a VeepStation and various connected devices instead. Eloise wasn’t sure whether she preferred the Veeps embodied or stationed. She had refused so far to have a Veep at all, and she was aware that this was a major problem for her, as an individual, and also for her individual lifechain predictions, and also for the lifechain predictions for all individuals, now and in the future. Varley had explained it to her. She was anomalous. Anomalies were a pain. They screwed up the system. The lifechain had to accommodate these painful anomalies and this accommodation made the results potentially unstable. Eloise still didn’t want a Veep. They made her feel sad—these assiduous entities with their heads at uncomfortable angles, or trapped in VeepStations or BeetlePads. Confined, either way. As Eloise walked past the VeepStation, Little Dorritt said: “Good morning, Eloise Jayne, good to see you again. Douglas Varley is waiting for you on OTR.” Little Dorritt operated using the latest face and voice recognition software and received constant updates from the Custodians—a Beetle service for smart cities. Eloise replied: “Hi, Little Dorritt, thanks for that, I’ll take the OTR now.” As she said, “Hello, Douglas Varley?” she was cursing Beetle for sending her so much work. When BeetleInsight failed, she was obliged to investigate the consequences. The consequences of each failure were cataclysmic. Yet, Beetle claimed it had the most accurate predictive algorithms in the world. Due to the astounding and unchallenged monopoly of Beetle as a global media conglomerate and main online reality for two-thirds of the world’s population, Beetle also had every available security contract with the Government and therefore it was the sole resource for those, like Eloise, who were obliged to arrest prospective criminals and terrorists in line with the Sus-Law, the latest extension of the Criminal Intentions Act. This law permitted her, and her colleagues, to arrest on the basis of predictive algorithms, or probability chains, and these were perceived to be legally authoritative in any trial. It worked beautifully for a while and had saved many lives but Eloise had noted a few glitches in recent weeks.

The Mann case was another major glitch. Three lives destroyed, so brutally. Varley was talking about how the lifechain predicts had failed and there would be a full BeetleInsight inquiry and the conclusions would be conveyed by the end of the morning—Eloise interrupted: “Forgive me for interrupting,” she said, not really caring if he forgave her or not. “Please ask Scrace Dickens to send Little Dorritt every available Argus report, immediately.”

“Yes, they’re copious,” said Varley.

“If we find Mann, he won’t kill anyone else. That’s my priority in the real world. The real world is my priority, not your virtual crap.”

“The real world isn’t just real,” said Varley. “It’s virtual too. Guy Matthias calls it Real Virtuality. Real Virtuality is preferable to reality because it is perfectible. It has greater value.”

“Thanks so much for explaining that,” said Eloise, thinking: I don’t care. It wasn’t even that she didn’t care. She despised these sorts of phrases. She didn’t really know Varley and they had never met in the bodily world but she despised him anyway. He seemed to be a perfect Beetle droog. As if sensing her ambivalence or even distaste, her BeetleBand was pinging at her, telling her to relax. The one thing Eloise understood about the Mann case was the moment when the poor murderous loser threw his BeetlePad in the Thames. Who didn’t want to do that? She would have thrown in her BeetleBand as well. But it was obligatory, or no insurance, no job. Fully obligatory, therefore, though Beetle claimed it was the personal choice of the individual. Without   the necessary data, an individual couldn’t be verified. Therefore, they could no longer be regarded as a trustworthy citizen and banks, corporations, prospective employers, actual employers would all proceed accordingly. Eventually such a person would be formally unverified. It was your personal choice to starve to death, to die on the streets—a marvelous choice. The path forked, in general, but in the case of the BeetleBand there were no other paths. It was the band or nothing.

“Just send the Argus information over and I’ll get Mann in prison,” she said.

“Absolutely,” said Varley. “Meanwhile we can give you a firm guarantee that this slight—glitch—in the algorithm will be fixed as a matter of total prioritization.”

Eloise didn’t bother to reply. She ended the exchange and then turned off the sound on her BeetleBand—which flashed urgently at her, to indicate that she had made a terrible mistake and turned the sound off—then she covered it with her sleeve, so it vibrated urgently to indicate that she had made a terrible mistake and covered it with her sleeve. Then she went into the office kitchen and poured some water into the kettle. The fridge said, “How are you this morning, Eloise?” Actually, the fridge already knew how she was because it was linked to the Custodians Program. It knew everything about her. The Custodians Program tracked people from the moment they woke (having registered the quality of their sleep, the duration), through their breakfast (registering what they ate, the quality of their food), through the moment they dressed, and if they showered and cleaned their teeth properly, if they took their DNA toothbrush test, what time they left the house, whether they were cordial to their door, whether they told it to fucking open up and stop talking to them, whether they arrived at work on time, how many cups of coffee they drank during the course of an average day, how many times they became agitated, how many times they did their breathing relaxation exercises, if they went to the pub after work and what the hell they did if they didn’t go to the pub, how late they went home, if they became agitated, angry, ill, drunk, idle at any point during any day, ever. It was sometimes difficult to determine if BeetleBand readings were good or bad; for example, a high pulse rate could indicate exercise, stress, or passionate sex. From the biological readings alone it was sometimes hard for the Custodians to differentiate between these states of being, but for greater accuracy they combined these readings with recorded visuals as well.

The Custodians were not sentient, in the traditional sense, but they were a sophisticated form of AI, developed in Beijing.

There were helpful notices from the Custodians in the hallways of residential blocks, on public transport, and in offices; these notices were also helpfully reiterated by BeetleBands, BeetlePads, Veeps, and fridges: “This is a respectful community. People are reminded that verbal abuse, disorderly conduct, dishonesty, smoking in public areas, criminal behavior, and a lack of respect for others in the community will be recorded in the individual verification system. To avoid a negative record of verification, please follow the relevant guidelines and help those in the community to follow them as well.”

The Custodians were not sentient, in the traditional sense, but they were a sophisticated form of AI, developed in Beijing. Indeed, the Custodian technology had been leased from Beetle’s Chinese partner company, Bǎoguǎn. This was not generally known because there was no reason for it to be generally known. It was in the public’s interest for the Custodians to monitor them—for the safety and security of the nation, and the smart running of the city—but it was not in the public interest for the public to know more precisely where the Custodians Program came from. It would only upset them and this would also upset their BeetleBand readings.

The fridge knew, for example, that Eloise had not eaten enough breakfast. It knew that the Custodians had advised her to eat more breakfast—via her fridge. It knew that she had ignored this sage advice. So it advised her, again, to eat some breakfast. It explained that it was full of berries and juice, as well as soya yogurt. It also knew that Eloise had forgotten to take her toothbrush test and it reminded her that she had forgotten to do this. Eloise waited for the kettle to boil and made herself a cup of coffee. The fridge advised her that this was ill-advised. There was no volume adjust on the fridge. At one level Eloise hated it, but she also felt ashamed about this. The fridge had the voice of a sad, nervous male of about 35—slightly like Douglas Varley, in fact—and it offered tentative suggestions about her diet, which she ignored. “Perhaps you might like a fruit tea instead?” it said, like a timorous friend who was afraid of her. In fact, she was fastidiously polite to the fridge, but it remained tentative and miserable. She imagined it, indeed, as a little man, trapped in the fridge and wasting his finite life talking to her about yogurt.

She took the milk from the fridge door. The fridge said, delicately,

“We have semi-skimmed and skimmed as well, if you’d prefer?”

“Thanks for the suggestion,” said Eloise, taking the full-fat anyway. Her BeetleBand was riddled with irate messages from Commissioner Newton. He was out of town, so he told Eloise to work with Little Dorritt and sort out this mess. Reluctantly, Eloise turned to the VeepStation and said: “Hello again, Little Dorritt.”

“Hello, Eloise, what can I help you with on this fine morning 23 November?”

She resisted the urge to tell Little Dorritt to shut up and instead said: “Argus data.”

“Sure!” said Little Dorritt.

For some time after that, Eloise pored over Argus images of George Mann walking along the banks of the Thames, under steel docklands apartments, and crossing at Shadwell, taking the Docklands Light Rail- way to its eastern terminus, arriving eventually onto the Isle of Sheppey. She watched him sitting on a bench and falling asleep. He slept—the bastard—for an hour, slumped like a drunk. He had been copiously drunk when he committed the crime, as his BeetleBand readings confirmed, though this was hardly an excuse. While he slept, she said: “Probability chain, next hour.”

“Sure!” said Little Dorritt. “George Mann will awake in the next ten minutes, based on ambient temperature readings and the probable temperature of his core. Based on the last time he ate, he will stand and walk 125 meters east to the nearby 24-hour garage and buy something to eat. Based on the last time he used the washroom he will use the washroom. He will wash his face and he will then continue walking. Based on his previous trajectory he will continue east across the Isle of Sheppey. Based on his levels of exhaustion it is probable he will check into the Isle of Sheppey Travelodge at Garden Terrace, the Isle of Sheppey, ask for an alarm call, and go to his room. He will sleep.”

“Probability chain inserting guilt,” said Eloise.

“Sure! George Mann will awake in the next ten minutes, he will stand and walk one hundred twenty-five meters east to the nearby twenty-four-hour garage and buy something to eat. He will use the washroom. In the washroom he will weep and shake. It is probable he will vomit. Based on his previous consumption his vomit will consist of whisky and red wine. He will wash his face and then he will continue east across  the Isle of Sheppey. It is probable he will check into the Isle of Sheppey Travelodge at Garden Terrace, the Isle of Sheppey, ask for an alarm call, and go to his room. He will not sleep.”

“Thanks!” said Eloise.

One odd thing about George Mann: he neither consulted his Beetle-Pad nor—except when he ordered the car—his BeetleBand.

For the next hour, she flicked through real-time Argus footage of Mann, as well as archive footage of him from the night before. There he was, in his office, moving along the corridor, treading heavily, his feet splayed to the sides, his suit fitting him rather badly, as if he had bought it when he was a younger and fitter man, with more muscle girth on his shoulders and arms, less fat on his legs and waist. She watched him walking to the Three Tuns pub. He sat there for hours, gulping down wine and whisky,  staring into space. The bar teemed with drinkers all evening and was still full when Mann left just after midnight. She observed him waiting for a Mercury car, looking exhausted and drunk. One odd thing about George Mann: he neither consulted his Beetle-Pad nor—except when he ordered the car—his BeetleBand. Around him, everyone was fixed on these devices, their faces illuminated by little screens. Once the Mercury car arrived Eloise had footage from  the operating system, with the VIADS camera focused remorselessly on Mann’s face as he stared out the window. Like everyone else, he had learned—she supposed—to keep his expressions very blank, never to register any violent changes of mood. He was also nondescript as he arrived at his house, recorded by the Argus cameras along his street.

Mann’s expression remained blank as he picked up the knife and—captured by the fridge camera—walked out of the room.

The crimes themselves, even seen through the shadowy and inadequate lens of external ArgusEyes, oriented toward the windows of Mann’s house, were horrific. His wife, in fact, did not struggle as she was smothered. Her recent deliveries by droid made it clear that she was an inveterate user of sleeping tablets, and Eloise assumed the postmortem would confirm that she was deeply drugged. The sons, however, slept more lightly and both had struggled as their father smothered them. Once each victim was inert, Mann stabbed them methodically, lining up the knife before he punctured their flesh. As far as she could discern from the footage, Mann’s expression stayed the same: blank. When Eloise first began in the police force, this blank expression was a clear sign of psychopathy. Mann would already have been categorized and she would be dealing with psychiatrists and experts on mental health. Now facial blankness no longer indicated anything much, in itself. Blankness had become normal, and even requisite.

For the next hour, Eloise assessed the real-time activities of Mann against the probability chain. The results were disconcerting.


As the first planes whined into London-Sheppey airport, George Mann slept on the bench, apparently undisturbed by the considerable noise above him, for another 25 minutes. Then he woke, yawned and stretched, and stood up. For a moment he watched a plane descending in front of him. Then he began to walk east, as the probability chain had indicated. However, Mann walked past the nearby 24-hour garage and, instead of confirming the chain, followed a winding path toward the beach. There, he relieved himself into the sea, then took off his clothes and went for a swim. This lasted five minutes; then Mann came out of the sea, shook himself dry, and dressed again. When he was fully clothed, he walked up the steps and toward the Isle of Sheppey Travelodge. Yet, he passed the entrance without even breaking his stride, and continued instead to a greasy spoon by the pier, called Pat’s Caff. There, Mann ordered a full English breakfast and a black coffee.

“Probability chain for the next hour,” said Eloise. “Factoring in a total lack of guilt.”

“Based on previous activities,” said Little Dorritt, “George Mann will finish his breakfast and then commit another serious crime.”

Eloise marked the case as dangerous. She put in a request for an Anti-Terror Droid, or ANT, to be sent over to George Mann. These droids followed the SAYD protocol—Shoot At Your Discretion. The protocol had been developed using petabytes of scenario data by DARPA—the US defense contractor—and the discretion was the robot’s. Eloise was relieved that she didn’t have to make the final call, though she wasn’t sure she much cared about the continued existence of George Mann.

Then she asked Little Dorritt to file a classified report.


From Zed by Joanna Kavenna. Copyright © 2020 by Joanna Kavenna. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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