Ghosts in our machines: Fiction from a century of hi-tech life – and death

New novels by Tom McCarthy and Daniel Kehlmann explore how modern technologies have reshaped the human mind.

Everything changes," sighed that great ironist, the French poet Paul Valéry, "except the avant-garde". In Britain, we are nearing the notional centenary of an avant-garde moment at which modern life – or so its artistic cheerleaders supposed – made a nonsense in all its velocity, complexity and relativity of the old ways of depicting it. Speaking in 1924 about new means of portraying people in the novel, Virginia Woolf memorably announced that "On or about December 1910, human character changed". The seemingly solid, in-depth, full-dress portraits of Victorian fiction and its inheritors told lies. On this view, the 20th-century personality demanded from its fictional investigators something more like an expressionist colour-field – or even a cubist collage.

In November that year, Woolf's Bloomsbury friend Roger Fry had organised the first Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London. That turning-point crops up – like so much else in the textbook history of modernism – as a cryptic allusion in Tom McCarthy's third novel, C (Cape, £16.99). During an interval in the aerial war over France in 1917, a disgruntled traditional artist splutters to the novel's central figure, the flying-corps observer Serge Carrefax, that "Soon as the cork popped at the Grafton and the poison genie seeped out, this war was a foregone conclusion. Just a matter of time."

For Serge's trad chum, the loss of "depth and texture" on the hellish battlefields created by hi-tech industrial warfare connects at some level with the modernists' assault on perspective. In contrast, Serge himself adores the "flat page" of the airman's bird's-eye view of the terrain, "robbed of elevation" – and of perceptible humanity as well. As for "all the mess" of total war, "Maybe that's the art".

We have been here before. In 1909, the archetypal petrolhead Filippo Marinetti – the Jeremy Clarkson of modernist propaganda – issued his first Futurist Manifesto. It honked frantically in favour of racing cars, smoky factories, throbbing steam-trains and all the other icons of technological progress that (purportedly) trumped the grace of ancient art. McCarthy, whose roles as fiction-writer and tendentious essayist blur far more in C than in his striking and assured previous works (Remainder and Men in Space), quoted Marinetti in a recent article about the long interaction of fiction and technology. However, he refrained from troubling his liberal readers with the ninth and tenth paragraphs of the Manifesto.

Here they are: "We want to glorify war - the only cure for the world - militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman... We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all... utilitarian cowardice." In 1919, Marinetti (with Alceste de Ambris) went on to publish another kind of manifesto: the founding document of Italian Fascism, a movement to which he lent his vehement support. Techno-modernism has its barbaric and dystopian side, as C itself – if not McCarthy's surprisingly sanguine critical prose – duly exposes.

Over the four movements of his short life (1898-1922), McCarthy's Serge serves as a blank-faced lightning-conductor or sounding-board for the violent currents of his time. We begin conventionally enough, with a beautifully rendered turn-of-century country childhood almost in the AS Byatt mode. Serge's inventor father pioneers radio broadcasting and his mother – spectral and formulaic, as C's women tend to be – carries on the family's Huguenot silk-weaving heritage.

Mr Carrefax, for whom "speech is divine", also teaches deaf children to vocalise. This motif nods to the experiments behind Alexander Bell's original telephone. It also gives another entrée to the communications theme that ramifies and interlocks throughout the book. For C presents individuals not as actors with free will, or even bundles of unconscious drives (another side of modernism), but as terminals or receivers who channel the messages that flow through "a vast sea of transmission".

A scientific prodigy, Serge's shadowy sister soon commits suicide - deranged, it seems, by presentiments of war as she devises charts full of ominous "vectors and relays". Later, after a Middle European spa-cure episode in the Magic Mountain mode – again, very finely but quite traditionally done - Serge studies mechanics in preparation for his airborne adventures.

In the exams, he considers the causes of train crashes and decides that "the catastrophe was hatched within the network". This is perhaps a glance at the idea that locked-in railway schedules somehow enabled pan-European war to break out in 1914, as well as a proclamation of this novel's belief in systems and structures as the final determinants of human fate. But if paranoia stalks the book, in the Thomas Pynchon sense of the crazed search for data networks that will somehow connect and explain everything, then so more powerfully does the idea of an intimacy between new technology and death – especially modern mechanical slaughter.

Carrefax senior, in the manner of many wireless innovators, imagines that waves from the speech – and even the passions – of the dead may endure forever in the ether: immortal vibrations that a sensitive receiver might detect. Here, McCarthy excels at laying bare the mystical overtones of the radio revolution a century ago.

Carrefax junior, pinpointing German artillery positions from his aircraft on reconnaisssance missions and calling fire down on them, becomes not a listener to ghosts but a maker of them. Exhilarated like Yeats's Irish airman with an apolitical "lonely impulse of delight", he exults in his role at "the zero hour of a new age of metal and explosive, geometry and connectedness". With his zombie-like detachment enhanced by cocaine and heroin, Serge delights in the flattened Hades of the Western Front. The sinister death-cult explored in the – brilliantly intense – wartime passages of C resembles not so much Marinetti as Wyndham Lewis, Britain's own great reactionary modernist. Like his work, it thrills – and chills.

After this climax, the novel goes into something of a tail-spin. A drug-fuelled dance through the postwar labyrinth of "encrypted" London streets yokes second-hand social history to a touch of psychogeography à la Peter Ackroyd or Iain Sinclair. Serge unmasks a fake medium with his radio skills but the novel can't – or won't – tune in to the emotional force of the need to contact the dead post-1918. Then a fourth, Egypt-set sequence – with Serge as as a spy amid big-power intrigues – almost collapses under the weight of its unwieldy info-dumps, from the Egyptian Book of the Dead as a networked system to the history of Alexandria. Serge's guide to that city, the ironic Greek factotum Petrou, seems to derive from EM Forster's portrait of the poet CP Cavafy – even down to his "perpetual slightly sideways stance".

For all the dash and panache of his prose, McCarthy simply doesn't trust the reader. So he beats her over the head with the same endlessly re-iterated bloc of themes. The same manic repetition that gave Remainder its subject in C almost hi-jacks the form. We end with a delirious dream sequence that – in keeping with McCarthy's "anti-humanist" affiliations – denies us the narrative closure and psychological completion of the (alleged) well-made traditional novel. Yet this pay-off really doesn't strike the reader as any more radical than (say) the way AS Byatt snuffs out her protagonists in the Great War chapters of The Children's Book, a work which – although this might give his smarter fans a fit of the vapours – C intermittently recalls.

McCarthy is a richly gifted novelist as well as an accomplished intellectual prankster. But C feels, for most of its length, no more revolutionary in its demolition of the sovereign subject in fiction than (say) Ian McEwan with his probes into the genetic basis of personhood, in Enduring Love or Saturday. The history of fiction – in Britain, or anywhere else – does not divide neatly into illusion-makers and illusion-breakers; "realists" and experimentalists. It never has; it never will.

Throughout C, both Carrefaxes sometimes grow aware of a faint electrical buzzing in the air: a just-audible call-sign for the new century of media and messages. Other novelists apart from McCarthy have recently grappled with the power of new technologies to re-shape the human selves who use them. Among them is the Austrian wunderkind Daniel Kehlmann.

Measuring the World, his breakthrough work, ends with a slip into SF fantasy as the great 19th-century mathematician Gauss enjoys a sneak preview of the world his theories will bring to birth. And what he first notices about the future is that quiet background hum, the unsleeping vibration of techno-modernity perceived as "a wobble in reality itself".

Fame (Quercus, £12.99), Kehlmann's new "novel in nine episodes", takes us deeper into that intimate space of contemporary life where networked gadgets reconfigure private souls and public roles. Mobile phones or online avatars allow our identities both to split and to spawn. In these deftly interlinked stories, smart metafictional games coincide with unironic and open-hearted reflections on loneliness, ageing and mortality. And they share with McCarthy an abiding interest in the metaphysics of technology.

The book's writer-figure Leo Richter – a postmodern master, we gather, but also a gormless klutz – at one point delivers a lecture on the "age of the image". He invokes - McCarthy-style - "a religious ideal become reality through the power of technology". Leo's a prophet of the present, but also a spineless pampered git who quakes with terror at the briefest move out of his five-star comfort-zone. Kehlmann plays much of this material for laughs with a merry irreverence that never detracts from his point and purpose.

Fame arrives in a nicely shaded and paced translation by Carol Brown Janeway. It captures the book's many shifts of mode and register, from chat-room geek-speak – in the hilarious "A Contribution to the Debate" - to the touching melancholia of a sick woman on her trip to a Swiss suicide clinic who feels "superfluous, a vestige". For loss and death shadow all these stories of embodied humanity in an era of disembodied data - from the Médecins Sans Frontières doctor Elisabeth, Leo's lover, who races to save three kidnapped colleagues from execution, to the self-destructive fantasies of Miguel Auristos Blanco, a Paolo Coelho-type Brazilian writer of New Age bromide bestsellers with titles such as Ask the Cosmos, It Will Speak.

We begin with a sad drudge of a computer repairman who, mistakenly given a film star's mobile-phone number, also acquires his friends, his mistresses, his problems – his life. We end with Leo in Africa on that perilous rescue bid, craving a dose of empirical reality at last. For all the tricksy self-consciousness of a book that describes, and dismisses, its writer-figure as "the author of intricate short stories full of complicated mirror effects and... flourishes of empty virtuosity", Fame manages to be genuinely moving, as well as consistently funny.

The ordeal of crime-writer Maria – who has taken Leo's place on a press trip to some benighted Central Asian "stan" – kicks off in the vein of belly-laugh satire on state tourism: endless pork-in-mayonnaise buffets on dire visits to sewage plants. It finishes, with Maria's mobile dead, her passport taken and companions gone, with a spine-tingling vortex of abandonment in which the stranded woman hovers close to the utter loss of self: "One false move and there would be no way back". Kehlmann can dive at rocket speed from the froth to the abyss.

Yet, for all the avant-garde swerves in their telling, the stories in Fame emit a steady signal of compassion for bewildered humans in the grip of machines that – Frankenstein-like – seek revenge on their inventors. "Life is over so quickly," says the eerie cab-driver in one episode – a figure, like several here, who has stepped out of Germanic folk-tale. "That's what these little phones are for". But, far from banishing death, our "electrical gadgetry" only leads us to it via unexpected routes. Human character may perhaps have changed – at least, in its technical manifestations and transmissions. Human destiny has not. Out of that mismatch comes today's tragi-comic buzz.

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