Cleo Watson insists her debut novel Whips – a “Jilly Cooper-style canter” around Westminster complete with “lots of lashes and quivering naked buttocks” – isn’t based on real events, says Sasha Swire in The New Statesman. But Boris Johnson’s former deputy chief of staff “is being slightly disingenuous”. There’s a bumbling posh prime minister, and a “politically ambitious wife with a direct line into the top hacks”. There’s an education secretary constantly “babbling like a f***wit”. There’s a female PM pulling swords out of her back. The only glaring omission is a “Machiavellian Chancellor of the Exchequer”.
But the protagonist of this “Westminster romp” is Eva, a junior Downing Street adviser. She has a striking similarity to Watson herself (pictured), who was nicknamed “the Gazelle” because of her “rangy limbs and good looks”. (The author is also apparently “quite horsey”, which explains the “interest in whips and jumping hurdles”.) Only someone who has spent so much time around politicians – Watson has recalled penning a Covid-infected Johnson in his office with a puppy gate, and checking his temperature while he “dutifully feigned bending over” – could catch so perfectly the “dark heart” of government: the “coyote-like ambitions”, the rat traps laid by hacks and the countless sexcapades. However shocking this salacious novel gets, I promise you it’s all happened. Or at least something like it.
With fears about runaway AI more in the news than ever, it’s striking, says The Times, just how far ahead of its time Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 novel Player Piano really was. The book is set in the near future, in the aftermath of a second industrial revolution. “The first industrial revolution devalued muscle work, and the second devalued routine mental work.” Machines have taken over nearly all ordinary jobs, meaning hardly anyone has skills society values. For some, it’s good riddance – “The lawyers! It’s a pretty good thing what happened to them” – though “barbering has held up better than all the rest”.
Looking back at books like this, “it’s fun to see what came true”. Vonnegut correctly predicted video doorbells and microwave-style cooking (“supper will be ready in 28 seconds”). And as the AI revolution approaches, it’s more relevant than ever to ask “what role society will have for those of us who are not unnaturally bright or talented or beautiful”. The world of the novel is divided in three: there is a small class of brainy “managers”, who live idly in one part of town, then there are the machines that do all the work, then there’s everybody else. “In its light way”, the book probes huge questions about meritocracy: if people at the top of society deserve to be there, it must also be true for those at the bottom. As one character puts it: “ ‘The criterion of brains is better than the one of money, but’ – he held his thumb and forefinger about a sixteenth of an inch apart – ‘about that much better’.”