Book review: The Domino Men, Jonathan Barnes

Jonathan Barnes’ The Domino Menpublished in 2010, yields new and interesting things every time I read it in, in part perhaps because of shifting events in my own life, but also because I can cut deeper down into the text when I have a better understanding of it. I know what’s going to happen and how things are going to play out in exquisite detail, and since I am spared the tingling anticipation, I can focus on the nuance. It’s one reason I really enjoy reading books that intrigue me, because I want to see if they can maintain that sense of intrigue and tantalisation when the mystery of the story is taken out — what happens when you know how every thread is going to resolve?

Set in an alternate version of modern day London, The Domino Men explores a world in which Queen Victoria signed a deal with a nebulous and mysterious entity — Leviathan — and as the cost agreed to give up the city at some point in the future. The concord sparked a war between a group called the Directorate and the Windsors, with both fighting it out behind the corridors of power and in stealth to wrest control. The Directorate ostensibly wants to stop Leviathan, while the Windsors believe in surrendering to the inevitable, all while the business of London swirls on around them, no one the wiser.

Enter Henry Lamb, an almost mindnumbingly dull man with a job as a filing clerk who shuffles through his life with no real ambitions of something greater, until his grandfather comes near death and everything gets upended when the Directorate comes for him and he realises that his whole life has been carefully orchestrated. Far from being an independent agent, he’s been a tool of his grandfather and the Directorate since birth, and they’ve finally come calling, relying on him to be part of the small and elite team that will stop Leviathan from rising and destroying society.

There are a lot of different ways to read this text, and perhaps I’m in a grim mood at the moment, but I read it right now as a stark commentary on late-stage capitalism, and as a sort of natural extension of The Octopuswhich took on the rise of the industrial era and the cementing of the capitalist social structures that dominated through the 20th century. Both are about unchecked power and control, and also specifically about the notion of control over human beings, with Leviathan excreting a substance known as Ampersand that acts like an addictive drug to entice members of the populace to do its bidding, while in The Octopus, the hungry maw of the railroad attempts to devour a group of farms, controlling the lives of the people who live there. In both cases, individuals are effectively powerless to fight back against the monstrous influences of forces almost beyond imagining, with sprawling, extensive control that encircles and traps people. Resistance is futile.

For those who haven’t read The Domino Men and don’t want to be spoiled, it may be prudent to turn away from the next few paragraphs, but it’s notable that Leviathan is ultimately revealed as an intergalactic corporation, and that the deal struck by the Queen allowed the corporation to store data in human bodies. The corporation is faced with one of the pressing challenges of our own era: So much data that it’s almost overwhelming to think about how to store and catalogue it effectively. For humans in the real world, this is driving innovation of better and better index and searching systems alongside more powerful computing and cloud storage. Leviathan, representing the interests of huge companies and other customers, has pushed beyond this with a massive flow of data that’s almost out of control, taking over entire planets and turning their residents into glorified file cabinets.

It’s a brilliant metaphor for the perils of capitalism, with a company not just controlling people in economic and social senses, but literal ones, eating into their bodies and using them for its own purposes, taking away all of their autonomy and personality. The people pressed into service by Leviathan are left not human beings, but shells, and as the Directorate fights to take back London, it does so with the growing understanding that it will be functionally impossible to save everyone’s lives. While the Directorate is far from a heroic anticapitalist organisation swooping in to rescue the populace, and it relies on unsavory means of its own, like the titular Domino Men and the trigger embedded deep within Henry Lamb, it feels that the marginal social cost of its actions is still preferable to the horrors of Leviathan.

I think about our own Leviathans as I read, about the Facebooks and Googles of the world, which turn the data we generate into profitable materials that in turn feed their own data repositories. I think about the more crude flow of data in reverse — we aren’t sucking at the literal tentacle of the corporate datastream, but we are still absorbing data at a rapid rate through pop culture, through advertising, through other corporate influences. The Domino Men takes that on in an intriguing, roundabout sort of way, one that should be sparking conversations about how we interact with corporations and big data. Perhaps generations before us didn’t sell our bodies to entities like Leviathan, but they did other things that may be just as bad.