The work of Argentinean writer Samanta Schweblin first became available to an English-language audience with the publication in 2017 of her novella, Fever Dream, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. Fever Dream was a tightly woven, deeply unsettling work that combined themes of business corruption and environmental pollution in a nightmarish narrative detailing a personal crisis and possibly, a ghost story. The text was dense with literary allusions and disorientating imagery, so skillfully compacted that the book felt freighted with powerful significance in spite of its short length. Fever Dream went on to win a thoroughly deserved Shirley Jackson Award in the best novella category, and it is good to see that Schweblin’s new novel Little Eyes has been published in English translation—again by Megan McDowell—more or less simultaneously with the Spanish original.
Little Eyes is, on the surface at least, more relaxed and expansive in tone than Fever Dream, its plot and guiding conceit more immediately apparent. A new craze is sweeping the world: small, semi-autonomous devices called kentukis are being sold to an eager public as the ultimate electronic “companion animal.” Available in an attractive range of colours and models—crow, mole, dragon, rabbit—kentukis are also a new and addictive form of social media.
Those wishing to purchase a kentuki can choose to be either a “keeper” or a “dweller.” While keepers get to take home their chosen animal, dwellers will find themselves in possession of an unprecedented chance to broaden their life experience. Rather than purchasing a kentuki model, kentuki dwellers purchase the software code that enables the kentuki to operate, forming an instant and unique connection with a kentuki model that could be anywhere in the world. With their identities hidden behind a username, kentuki dwellers are able to spy on every aspect of life within the home and family of the keeper they have been paired with. As an added twist, kentuki connections are assigned at random, strictly at a rate of one per purchase. If a kentuki model fails to recharge its battery, or severs its connection for any other reason, that individual model is effectively “dead,” the connection between keeper and dweller permanently broken.
And so these “little eyes” begin to proliferate until within a matter of months they become ubiquitous. As with any unfamiliar gadget, user mileage may vary. For the keeper, there is a permanent tension between the satisfaction of ownership and the barely acknowledged risk of effectively inviting a stranger into the home. For the dweller, the kentuki experience will depend heavily on how and if their keeper chooses to interact with the kentuki model: what physical freedoms they are prepared to allow, how much of an entrée into their personal lives they are willing to give. As so often with new and shiny objects, everyone wants a kentuki, but no one seems entirely certain of what they are for.
Little Eyes is constructed as a series of alternating parallel narratives set in a number of locations, each exploring the wildly differing experiences of an apparently random selection of dwellers and keepers. If there is a main character, it is probably Alina, a young woman who, for want of anything better to do with her summer, has snagged an invite to an artists’ residency in Oaxaca. While her boyfriend Sven becomes increasingly preoccupied with his art project, Alina obsesses over Sven’s relationship with his studio assistant and forms increasingly far-fetched theories as to the possible identity of her kentuki dweller.
Unlike other keepers, Alina is determined not to develop an interactive relationship with her kentuki, confining it instead to the role of novelty possession. As Sven’s interest in the kentuki phenomenon begins to grow, so Alina becomes almost pathologically determined to limit the autonomy of her own model. Her behaviour towards the kentuki becomes increasingly irrational and cruel, leading to a painful denouement that leaves her questioning the nature of her identity.
We also meet Enzo, a divorced father who initially buys a kentuki as a gift for his son but increasingly comes to depend on it for emotional support. When an apparently innocent interaction causes the kentuki to withdraw its affection, Enzo is devastated at a level that seems out of all proportion with the loss he has suffered. Eventually, his ex-wife, Giulia, who harbours her own dark suspicions about the motivations of kentuki dwellers in general, gives him an ultimatum: either get rid of the kentuki or risk losing contact with his son.
Meanwhile, in the land of the dwellers, an elderly lady named Emilia becomes inappropriately protective of the morals, welfare, and daily life of her keeper, Eva, a fun-loving young woman who has embarked upon a relationship with the boorish, domineering, and two-timing Kurt. Emilia’s attempts to intercede do not have quite the result she intended. At the same time, Marvin, a lonely teenager living in Antigua, is consumed by the desire to experience the snowy climate of Scandinavia through his connection with a kentuki in a small town in Norway. When his kentuki is “liberated” by a kentuki rights activist, his newfound family of dwellers are happy to do everything in their power to achieve his dream.
One of the most intriguing storylines concerns Grigor, a fly-by-night entrepreneur living in Zagreb. Grigor specialises in offering highly prized and necessarily expensive “bespoke” kentuki connections, furnishing would-be dwellers with specific information about their potential keepers before a connection is initiated.
Companies would soon take over the business opportunity behind the kentukis, and it wouldn’t be long before people figured out that if you had the money, rather than paying seventy dollars for a connection card that would turn on in a random corner of the world, it was better to pay eight times that and choose your location. There were people willing to shell out a fortune so they could spend a few hours a day living in poverty, and there were people who paid to be tourists without leaving their houses: to travel through India without a single day of diarrhoea, or to witness the arctic winter barefoot and in pyjamas... Sometimes the customers weren’t so sure about what they were looking for, and Grigor would send them two or three forms with examples of images and videos. He watched his keepers eat, sleep, shower. More than once, bored with waiting, he’d entertained himself going through his keepers’ things while they were out.
Hardheaded by nature, Grigor finds his business flourishing. But his insider knowledge of one particular keeper ultimately lands him in a situation he is unable to ignore.
The creeping menace of surveillance technology has provided a rich source of material for science fiction writers. Unfortunately, it has also been the catalyst for a host of novels that have proved disappointingly unimaginative in their doom-saying, with variants on the “big data” theme becoming particularly tired. My fear that Little Eyes might turn out to be just one more “spy in the sky” narrative was countered by my interest in Samanta Schweblin as a writer. Following her highly personal take on the uncanny in Fever Dream, I was keen to find out how Schweblin might approach a more straightforwardly science-fictional conceit. I was delighted to discover that Little Eyes is as original, disturbing, and provocative as her previous work.
In his landmark 1979 work The Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, the philosopher and critical theorist Darko Suvin defined the concept of the novum in science fiction as a means of cognitive estrangement, an anomalous breach in accepted verities. “All the epistemological, ideological, and narrative implications and correlatives of the novum lead to the conclusion that significant SF is in fact a specifically roundabout way of commenting on an author’s collective context,” Suvin insists. In other words, the most interesting and socially dynamic science fiction has as much to do with our present as with our imagined future.
In Little Eyes, the kentuki acts as a classic novum: a focusing lens through which we can better examine the society into which it is introduced. As a piece of technology, the kentuki becomes quickly assimilated. As its novelty begins to wear off, the device begins to function less as a status symbol and more as a mirror to the self. The characteristics and desires of the individual—loneliness, greed, sadism, fear, alienation, and, most of all, the need for intimate communication of any kind—are both projected onto the kentuki and enacted through it. Through the course of the novel, the characters reveal more about themselves through their behaviour towards the kentuki than through their conventional interactions with the people around them. The need of the keeper to feel in control is such that they become engaged in a continuous process of self-deception: in persuading themselves that their actions remain secret, they are able to ignore the fact that they have entered into a symbiotic relationship. To their dwellers, they become increasingly transparent—present in the relationship at a level unlike any they have previously experienced.
Some of Schweblin’s most interesting theorising lies in this area of difference in temperament and aspiration between keepers and dwellers. When Emilia learns that her son has a kentuki of his own, and that he has been trying to establish a real-world connection with his dweller just as she has, she is forced to face hitherto unspoken questions about their relationship and their knowledge of each other:
It took her a second longer to realise her son had bought her the connection to a kentuki, and on the other hand, he’d bought a real kentuki for himself, like the one Eva had in Erfuhrt. Her son would rather be a keeper than a dweller? That is, he would rather have than be? And just what did that tell her about her own son? She didn’t want to learn anything uncomfortable, and even so, if people could be divided between kentuki keepers and dwellers, it disturbed her to be on the opposite side from her son.
The true subject of Schweblin’s novel is not the addictive appeal of the technology itself, so much as its abstract result: the relinquishment of privacy and what such a step might entail. Not all the narratives in Little Eyes end up in a bad place, although many of them do. Aside from the kentuki’s effects on individual dwellers and keepers, what seems most striking is the lack of awareness, in the cases of both parties, of how much is at stake. Both dwellers and keepers are so eager to participate in this new mode of communication—this new mode of ownership—that the implications of the transaction are not properly thought through. Alina in particular becomes increasingly horrified and fascinated by the limitless potential for chaos in a kentuki-shaped world:
What was the whole stupid idea of the kentukis about? What were all those people doing rolling around on other people’s floors, watching how the other half of humanity brushed their teeth? Why didn’t anyone collude with kentukis to hatch truly brutal plots? Why didn’t anyone send a kentuki loaded with explosives into a crowded central station and blow it all to smithereens? Why didn’t any kentuki user blackmail an air traffic controller and force him to immolate five planes in Frankfurt in exchange for his daughter’s life? Why didn’t even one single user out of the thousands who must be moving at that very moment over truly important papers take note of some crucial detail and break the Wall Street markets…? Why were the stories about kentukis so small, so minutely intimate, stingy, and predictable?
Schweblin examines not just our future, but our current reality in a clear-eyed, undramatic, and satisfyingly realistic manner that shows rather than tells. She offers no overarching conclusions, no moral lessons other than those we might draw for ourselves from our own observations. As a writer she seems determined that her readers, like her characters, must make up their own minds how they will respond to a new reality, and shoulder the consequences accordingly.
Beautiful, haunting, and, on at least one occasion, downright horrific, Little Eyes is the best kind of science fiction: infinite in its possibilities, unrelenting in its pursuit of an idea, experimental in the sense of being quite literally a thought experiment. Schweblin’s use of language is economical yet intense, with a clarity of vision that is unsparing, almost brutal in its directness. Yet there is tenderness too, an involvement with character that allows us as readers to engage with each narrative thread at a personal level.
This truly excellent novel offers a striking evocation of how it feels to live in the world at this particular moment. Too fickle and too fluid to be described as a dystopia, the surveillance society Schweblin describes is neither as familiar nor as predictable as that of Orwell’s Big Brother. Rather, it is an accretion of circumstance, an acceleration of change that initially seems so harmless it is all but invisible. The erosion of privacy—and, by extension, selfhood—is a loss in which we are all, to varying degrees, if not willing, then complicit.
In the final pages of the novel, Alina discovers that Sven’s betrayal has nothing to do with whether or not he has been sleeping with his assistant. There are worse transgressions, on broader canvases. In a world where the very notion of privacy is at risk through being taken for granted, the most dangerous spies are not our governments, but us:
She would forget about all these gods, and putting up no resistance, she’d let herself fall to Earth. She would give in. She told herself this, but she couldn’t close her eyes again. She breathed atop the circles, above hundreds of verbs, orders, and desires, and the people and the kentukis surrounded her and started to recognise her. She was so rigid she felt her body creak, and for the first time she wondered, with a fear that threatened to break her, whether she was standing on a world that it was ever possible to escape.