Author: Megan Angelo
Publication date: January 14, 2020
Genre: science fiction, dystopian
My rating: 4.5/5 stars
A curious blend of incisive perception, dark humor, and horrifying prediction, Followers is a worthy addition to the rapidly expanding canon of Black Mirror-esque dystopian fiction, shining a critical lens on our fascination (obsession?) with technology, social media, and how far we will go to get what we think we deserve.
“I’ve done the actual math. There are eight million people here, and all of them want something as bad as I want what I want, as bad as you want what you want. We’re not all going to get it. It’s just not possible, that all these people could have their dreams come true in the same time, same place. It’s not enough to be talented, it’s not enough to work hard. You need to be disciplined, and you need to he ruthless. You have to do anything, everything, and you need to forget about doing the right thing…Leave that shit to people in the Midwest.”
The book’s narrative unfolds in parallel timelines:
In 2015, NYC, Orla Cadden is in her late 20s, blogging for a feminist clickbait site while secretly convinced she is better than her coworkers and is destined to do something great–write a novel, change the world, the usual. When she realizes her new roommate, Floss, is an aspiring-singer-turned-influencer, she seizes the opportunity to manage Floss’s rising star…and pull herself into the spotlight as well.
Meanwhile, in 2051, California, Marlow is a citizen of the artificial city called Constellation, with her every action broadcasted live to millions of followers. Outwardly, her life is perfect. But beneath the carefully-organized world her producers have curated for her, with scripted plotlines and endless parties and constant medication, she is far from content with things. And now, realizing that some things she took for granted may not be entirely true, she is overtaken by a desire to find the truth…and her freedom.
In so many ways, this book is precisely what it needs to be: long enough to feel substantial, but quick enough to keep you turning the page; close enough to reality to make you cringe at its accuracy, but also so close that it makes you laugh at its absurdity; intelligent enough to really stick in your head, but not so intelligent that it feels pompous. Its premise is not entirely revolutionary–plenty of cautionary tales surrounding our social media landscape already exist–but it taps into that vein of omnipresent revision and self-awareness that throbs ever closer to the surface of our lives as we give ourselves over to the technology surrounding us, making the story feel less like a “what if…” and more like a “what happens when…”
What allows Followers to excel, going beyond merely a good premise to become a whole, captivating work, is Angelo’s skillful development of character. The two primary narrators, Orla and Marlow, are particularly multidimensional, with relatable goals and even more-relatable flaws–brought out, in both of them, by none other than Floss.
Orla, specifically, had that mindset that my generation has become intimately familiar with: full of self-assured superiority (based on very elementary reasons, like being good at writing when you were a kid) but grappling with endless distraction and the monotony of the rat-race that is surviving in society, gravitating toward procrastination even to the point of being crippled by it, wondering whether being principled is worth it when you could make a quick buck by dropping your standards, and so on. (Of course, on this last point, it is Floss who truly causes her to cross that line.) She fights with friends, fights with her parents, makes poor relationship choices…but she also makes friends where she doesn’t expect to, does her job well, and stands up for herself as best she can when she most needs to. Whatever you want to say about her as a person, you have to admit that she is smart, and she is talented, and it is easy to cheer for both her victories and her self-sabotaged failures. In other words, reading her chapters felt ever so slightly like a personal attack on all Millennials–not quite calling us out, but also not shying away from those more callous personality traits we like to hide.
Marlow is, in many ways, not so different from Orla: she craves success but doesn’t want to be the center of attention. She finds it hard to define herself in terms of anything but the work she has always done, and she measures her self-worth (and bases her sense of superiority on) clicks and follows. She simultaneously loves and hates the system. And she thinks she is savvy–and, in many ways, she is–but she still has large blind spots caused by the naivete that comes with early success. She and Orla also grapple with similar struggles, albeit in very different forms: the difference between love and obsession, the question of motherhood, the value of genuine connection in an increasingly digital world. All of these complications and contradictions, Angelo navigates masterfully, capturing their complexity and making these women absolutely demand the reader’s attention–whether that attention is full of support or scorn.
As an aside, I really appreciate how this book focuses on women on all sides of the “influencer” phenomenon. Interestingly enough, “social media influencer” is one of the only jobs in which women get paid more on average than men do (at least in some countries/on some platforms…the data is a little inconsistent, but the point is that this is an industry that, in some ways, can be more lucrative for women). The same does not apply to the women who write about those influencers, though proximity to fame does open doors, and publishers become far more interested in Orla when her name becomes inseparable from Floss’s.
We do see male influencers in this book as well–namely, Floss’s boyfriend, Aston, who is basically a man-child–and it is quickly apparent how the standards those men face are so different from women. Where Floss and Orla carefully calculate their every move, time every post, make sure every detail is perfect to avoid scandal and ensure maximum impact, Aston posts the stupidest of things with absolute impunity. In Marlow’s story, she has to follow the network’s script for her, while her husband works for an outside company and gets to make big choices for her–even making her the face of his own company’s medication. Double standards abound, even when women appear to have the upper hand, and in the eerie funhouse mirror that is Followers, those standards loom in the background in a way that never feels forced but nevertheless cannot be ignored.
On nearly every note, this book rang true, except one: an event known as the Spill, which happened sometime between Orla’s story and Marlow’s, its nature slowly being revealed over the course of the novel. While I won’t throw too much detail out there, so much of this book felt plausible, and even the futuristic technology enabled some slight suspension of disbelief. And yet, this one event simply did not make sense. Technologically, there was no reasonable way it could have been executed, and from a plot standpoint, it provided a sense of setting but still came a bit out of nowhere. I liked it as an element, but its inclusion in the story was not handled as well as it could have been, which dampened my enthusiasm, particularly since its occurrence was part of the book’s climax. It drove home some of the book’s major themes, but it muddied the waters by removing the human element that is central to the novel’s overall message.
That said, though, Followers does do a remarkable job of reminding us about those fundamental truths that the internet often obscures: some privacy can be good, genuine connection is essential, and stories rarely succeed without extensive revision. It succeeds precisely because it takes both a mirror and a microscope to this element of our culture, casting it in past and present, in such entertaining and terrifying detail that, like Floss’s and Marlow’s followers, we simply can’t look away.
“You’re so much smarter than me, but there’s one thing I get that you never have. There aren’t actually heroes or victims or villains. Not in our story, and probably not in anyone else’s. I know you know this deep down: It’s all in the edit.”
Thank you to the publisher for providing me with an ARC of this book through a Goodreads Giveaway in exchange for an honest review! All quotes in this review are subject to change in the final print edition of the book.