Fishbowl is a lo-octane thriller that will appeal to anybody with a geeky side. At the centre of the novel is social media start-up Fishbowll and its creator Andrei Koss. The novel opens with Andrei coming up with a concept. What if there was a way for you to meet online somebody with a very specific interest you share? From this idea he builds Fishbowll.
The book, is in essence ‘The Social Network’ in novel form. At the start Andrei is a student in Stamford. He blows off his courses to concentrate on marathon ‘wheelspin’ coding sessions that sees Fishbowll go live . He and two friends thrash out the idea fully, then implement it. Before long they have hundreds of users, not long after, thousands, with people are joining all the time.
Fishbowl (the novel) tracks the journey from start-up to behemoth. As Fishbowll grows, decisions have to made. How to generate revenue, where to spend it. Who’s advice to take. Before long, a new investor is found; a veteran (though of course still young) of some vaguely successful internet start-ups. He’s the character who would be played by Justin Timberlake; the one who adds a more commercial and hedonistic side to the group. He’s useful to counteract Andrei’s high concept purity. The relationship between these two forms the backbone of the novel.
On the face of it, there isn’t a great deal of excitement in Fishbowl, yet at times I found it utterly compelling. The details of the website and company growth are fascinating, from both a technical and conceptual perspective. Much is made of the Andrei’s wish to create something truly visionary and altruistic, whilst at the same time recognising the need for his creation to survive. The discussions around the compromises Andrei needs to make are interesting and thought provoking, none more so when it is discovered terrorists may have used the site to discuss their plans.
‘The world is getting exactly the internet it deserves.’
The problems Andrei and Fishbowl face felt very real. This gives the novel a slightly mundane feel, but also grounds it in reality, anchoring its debates on things like the right for free speech and personal responsibility when using the internet. Much is made of the need for advertising. The idea that the only way to keep costs down is to advertise. If something isn’t free, then us, the users, aren’t interested. We’re happy to give almost any piece of information about ourselves away for free as long as we can keep using our social media. Fishbowl is essentially an extension of the idea that mankind has created an incredible network that allows instantaneous access to almost the entire sum of human knowledge, and we use it to watch cats fall out of trees.
The novel is not without its flaws though. It would be impossible for me to call this novel exciting. It’s not a thriller in the traditional sense and its a long book to have so little action. This of course is fine, action is not a prerequisite for a good story, yet Clancy and Crichton are namechecked on the cover, but not one person gets eaten by a dinosaur. More troubling is the ending. As the fishbowl gets bigger heading beyond Olympic swimming pool size, it’s obvious something bad is going to happen, but one is hard pushed to think what that might be. You can’t help think that the author had the same problem. When the ending comes, it is very much forced by outside agency. How the end comes about is abrupt and unsatisfactory. Having said that, what Glass does with this end is powerful, shocking and quite likely to leave you howling in anger. In a good way. It almost justifies the novel’s deus ex machina. Almost.
All in all Fishbowl is a good novel. I think it’s slightly niche. It’s geek mana that I lapped up, but I think without at least a passing interest in technology and social media, you wouldn’t find enough in the novel to make it worth reading. It is over-long.
Fishbowl is thought provoking in its discussion of the role social media has to play in society, in particular in regards to free speech, national security and personal responsibility. It’s one in the eye for the trolls, but I doubt they’d notice. Perhaps the novel’s greatest asset is that it’s easy to see that Fishbowl could exist, and even easier to see how its development would be tainted by the darker hues Glass paints his canvas with. Fishbowl is a strong addition to a growing canon about the new ways in which we interact and the continuing battle between freedom of expression and making a buck.
Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla
Many Thanks to Alison at Corvus/Atlantic for sending me a copy of this book
One final observation of book marketing, something you hear that goes on, but I’ve never noticed first hand. The book’s cover quote says ‘ The heir to Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton’ -THE ECONOMIST – but when you read the Economist review it’s talking about it says – ‘the publisher is already describing Mr Glass as the heir to Tom Clancy (for “The Hunt for Red October”) and to Michael Crichton (for “State of Fear”, his diatribe about global warming).’ So the Economist didn’t really say it did it…