IN THE FOLLOWING passage from Hari Kunzru’s recently published novel Gods Without Men, the Guide, leader of an extraterrestrial-worshipping cult, explains to his followers in the Californian desert the importance of a new piece of technology called the Mux. It is 1958 and the Guide describes how powerful Muxing will become to humans in the dissemination of ideas and eradication of loneliness on Earth.
The principle of muxing, or multiplexing, is … a way of combining multiple messages into a single signal, then sending it over a shared medium. That medium could be a length of wire or even the very air, in the case of wireless transmission of radio waves ... It’s conceivable that using this technology, a single transmitter could become the mouthpiece for the combined will and power of entire populations, entire planets … The Mux … is a stepping stone to the next level of human consciousness …
As I sit in my front room in southeast London, in the afternoon, I’m using the powers of technology, via a Skype headset and webcam, to communicate with Kunzru, who is drinking a morning coffee in a hotel room in Seattle. He has always been a big fan of technology: before his incarnation as a novelist he was an associate editor at technology magazineWired. One of his essays for the publication was titled: You are Cyborg.
Kunzru says that thanks to technological advances human beings sometimes behave like robots. “We are kind of cyborgs already,” he says. “This is a cyborg operation, two people attached to the international phone network, able to speak to each other as a kind of assemblage of machines. The networks are also getting quite intimate with our bodies. We’re not too far off a lot of the functions currently in our phone handsets. It was once in a desktop, then it went onto our laps, now it’s in our hands, pretty soon it will be attached to our bodies, then one day maybe in our bodies. At that point we are going to be proper cyborgs.”
And the Mux?
“The Mux is supposed to be this mythical communication device that will allow all these superbeings to network together, a kind of cosmic proto internet.”
A complex and intriguing novel, Gods Without Men takes on several grand themes and shifts from the 18th century to 2009. The desert is the force linking seemingly unconnected characters and events in a book that eschews a conventional linear structure.
The main story concerns the desert disappearance of four-year-old autistic boy Raj Matharu in 2008. The novel sweeps back and forth to other characters, including a British rock star on the run from a failed relationship, a former member of the extraterrestrial devotional sect and a desert-wandering, 18th-century Franciscan monk. In the background of this chaotic universe, in which the players are trying to find meaning in their lives, is Coyote, the mythological figure common to many Native American cultures.
Gods Without Men is a far more complicated novel than Kunzru’s previous book, My Revolutions. Writing a labyrinthine tale that sometimes reads like a book of a philosophy was partly an accident, he says.
“The story started with the Matharu family in the motel and as I carried on with that, travelling out there to the desert in California, I came into contact with a lot of UFO culture and it became clear there were other stories I wanted to be in there. I wasn’t initially sure how they related, but later everything seemed to start resonating and echoing.
“It was a technical challenge to try to hold down all the material in the book. I’m interested in the idea of fragments and stories that aren’t necessarily tied up together, but require the reader to work to put them together. I like the idea of the reader being active.”
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