Sometimes it seems as as though authors go out of their way to select the most academic or arcane-sounding quote (the older, the better) to serve as the preamble to their novel. Not so with Kevin Nguyen’s first novel, New Waves (303 pages; One World). The book opens with a familiar quote from the classic 1986 Nintendo game Legend of Zelda, “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this,” which clues in readers to the millennial voice of this novel—warm, inviting, unpretentious—and underscores one of the themes of the book, that of friendship and solidarity, including the makeshift families we sometimes form with co-workers or internet communities when our own families let us down.
The story is set in the tech world of Brooklyn and Manhattan during President Obama’s first term; it’s an environment defined by high stakes, long hours, and hard drinking. Our narrator, Lucas, is a recent college grad from Oregon who lands a job at rising start-up Phantom, but his lifestyle is hardly as glamorous as one might expect: while the programmers and engineers command respect in the office, Lucas is merely the one-man customer service team, the one who has to answer e-mails when users of the company’s app—a text service where messages delete themselves after they are read—are harassed or bullied. It’s a low-paying gig that doesn’t earn him much cache at the company.
Lucas’s lowly status at Phantom allows Nguyen, who is the features editor at The Verge and previously served as senior editor at GQ, to give readers a ground-floor view of life at a rapidly-growing app, warts and all, and how things can go so wrong, so fast:
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There would be some very light encryption on the user data, but every engine had access to it. This was a common problem at startups. When you start with a small team of engineers, none of them are dedicated to security. The goal is to build something as quickly as possible, so nobody gets hired to protect user privacy. Even as a startup grows large and stable enough to support a security team, it’s always been deprioritized from the start…The place was managed by a mixture of twentysomethings with little work experience and a handful of computer-illiterate adults brought in to babysit them.
New Waves is full of passages like this, which use clear and concise language to break down the shortcomings of the way tech companies operate, woven organically into the narrative since this is the very environment Lucas finds himself in. He feels put-upon by the office culture set by Brandon, Phantom’s well-intentioned idiot of a CEO. Brandon is the stereotypical tech bro, and he isn’t troubled that the start-up he envisioned as a tool for journalists to outsmart authoritarian regimes has become co-opted by cyber-bullying teenagers, as long as it means the company draws investors. Worse yet, Lucas is still grieving over the unexpected death of his closest friend, Margo, who faced her own battles as a black woman working in the male-dominated tech field. (Things go a little smoother for the Asian-American Lucas but he still must overcome plenty of obstacles himself.)
Shortly after the funeral service, Lucas is approached by Margo’s mother, who tasks Lucas with deleting her daughter’s Facebook account. (After a loved one has passed away, relatives are faced with a binary choice from Mark Zuckerberg’s company: memorializing the Facebook page or permanently and irreversible deletion). Once he cracks the password to Margo’s laptop, he finds he can’t resist the temptation to explore its hard drive; during his search, he uncovers a treasure trove of science-fiction stories Margo had orated as .wav files. The crushing pessimism of Margo’s dystopic tales serves as a potent contrast between both the shiny retro-futuristic aesthetic of the sci-fi she was most influenced by, as well as the almost wistfully naïve vision of the future often propagated by the tech world she and Lucas work in—work they sought out not because of their love of social media but because, as cash-strapped millennials in the midst of a Great Recession, they knew where the money was. Here’s a not untypical ending to one of Margo’s short stories:
So the tribunal comes to a conclusion. They set coordinates for the Citadel to collide with the Arctic. The impact will create a tidal wave that swallows the Earth, drowning every human being…And that was humankind’s last great act: taking matters into its own hands. Who knows? Maybe the threat of extinction would bring out the best in people again. Go out on a high note.
Despite engaging in some questionable activity (including hacking a former employer), Lucas is not a bad person; he ultimately feels guilty about scouring his deceased friend’s hard drive. Even so, it’s through this research he discovers her past activity on an obscure web message board, and he begins a correspondence with a novelist who befriended Margo there. The two meet up to discuss their dearly missed friend and soon engage in a brief fling; but more meaningful than their physical tryst, they come to realize, is the genuine love they shared for Margo—and the two dedicate themselves to transcribing Margo’s stories as a means to preserve her memory.
So, yes, not unlike Legend of Zelda, Nguyen’s New Waves reminds us of how perilous it can be when we charge headlong into life’s challenges alone, particularly when we’re navigating the often thorny world of tech and ethics in the 21st century, when our privacy and very identities are often at risk. This thoughtful and disarming novel expresses a fondness for the distant era of music-trading services like Napster and anonymous message boards that brought tech-savvy misfits together from the comfort of their dorm rooms, but casts a healthy amount of suspicion on our current landscape of start-ups and social media run amok. An app on our phone can pretend a message never existed simply because it disappears from our screens after being read, but our memories are stubbornly dedicated to the act of preservation. Lucas’ journey offers a glimpse of what that preservation looks like in a world where so many live online, where the difference between forgetting and remembrance might involve a single refresh of an inbox, and reminds us that we must, in the language of tech, adapt or be left behind.