Book Review: HellSans, by Ever Dundas

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There is a pun buried at the heart of this wonderful novel. What is HellSans? It’s a font, a new font that induces “happiness” in those who read it. But the baptismal font is also the place where one is baptized, and it is a baptism of fire. It’s a novel that evokes various other writers – one thinks of JG Ballard, Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, Guy Debord’s La Société du Spectacle and plenty of pulpy, schlocky books that wouldn’t be considered ‘fiction’. literary”. It’s a fun read, but with serious intent. It also shares a lineage with Ali Smith’s How To Be Both in that it comes in two forms: the reader first meets CEO Jane Ward or scientist Ichorel Smith, and their stories can be read in either order before they collide. This is not the only dubbing of the book. The lookalike idea has been somewhat overplayed in Scottish fiction – Hogg, Stevenson, Herdman, Rankin et al – and it is to his credit here that Dundas finds a new way to deal with an eternal problem. To put it bluntly, the novel always relied on an 18th-century idea that humans are intact, discrete, autonomous, and choice-making entities. What would the novel look like without fixed identities or with fluid possibilities? As one of them says: “I think I can pass myself off”.

HellSans is set in a surprisingly feasible future. Ward is the CEO of the ominously named “The Company”, which provides biomechanical assistants; the relatively drone like Ino (sort of domestic) and the more interactive Inex. The Inex is a combination of a smartphone, Alexa, the Cloud and a Fitbit, monitoring the owner, offering advice and, as their tagline says, “ALWAYS AND FOREVER HELPING YOU BE THE BEST YOU CAN BE ” (it seems important that it be in garish capitals). It is also, as far as possible, your memory. Icho’s work focuses on HellSans Allergy, a condition in which people get sick from the ubiquitous typeface, and who are locked down by the government in ghettos. A thriller-style plot means the privileged and haughty Ward discovers she’s “deviant” and finds herself in the ghetto, after witnessing a crime. Icho is determined to find her, as she may have, if not a cure, then a palliative means of taking care of the HSAs. The ghetto is also home to the Seraphim, who are depending on who you listen to either a terrorist group or a liberation movement: and that’s another clever, clever pun. Seraphim add serifs to the HellSans font. Then things get really, really dark, like any novel that has the Fleming-esque phrase “if I wanted to, I could kill five billion people”.

It is an intensely corporeal book. Those with a delicate temperament may wish to move on to another page. A character “shivers, trembles, sweats, loses, shits, bleeds, vomits” at some point, allergy sufferers have cracked lips, perpetual nausea, scars, falling teeth. Other characters are tortured to the smallest detail. This is made more visceral by the idea that whatever happens to its Inex can be felt by the owner. The convergence of flesh and technology has rarely been so vivid. As Ward gloats, “People don’t realize how vulnerable they are, what their Inex – society – has access to. Your physical stats, your conscious thoughts, what’s underneath, the Möbius loop of emotions and the body, your story in great detail, the records – every moment of your life. They don’t think about all that – the Inex is just an expensive toy, servant, pet. They take him for granted, not understanding that he knows them better than they know themselves”. It’s far more goosebump-inducing than any of the vomiting and vomiting that occurs in the novel.

PIC Ever Dundas: Cinn Curtis

Icho and Jane’s story more than passes the Bechdel test in terms of female characters, not just talking about men, usually in a romantic way. There is a weird aspect to the plot, but done without apologies or insistence. In one part, the characters’ stories are already written by their arachnid-powered cyborgs, and what the reader has already read is called into question. It seems the machines have a plot in mind. (Part of this is a witty satire on lazy writing – there has to be an arc, there has to be dramatic tension, there has to be some form of closure: crikey, but there is) .

HellSans is a remarkable and admirable work. I liked that it’s hard to imagine what an Inex actually looks like – they can look like cats, spiders or humanoids – so the reader has to exercise their imagination. I rather recklessly said that if Dundas’ debut album Goblin didn’t win the Saltire First Book Award, I’d be walking naked down Princes Street. When she accepted the said award, she claimed that it was only given to her to prevent such public horror. This time I will just say that the late Iain M Banks has a worthy, gruesome, beady-eyed heir.

HellSans, by Ever Dundas, Angry Robot, £9.99

HellSans, by Ever Dundas
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