Fluence by Stephen Oram: a novel idea stems from supermarket epiphany

PUBLISHED: 17:50 08 August 2015

author stephen oram

author stephen oram

Archant

Daniel Wittenberg speaks to an inspired author and civil servant

You can come up with a long list of reasons why self-service checkouts might fit a dystopian vision of the future. None, however, will be quite as compelling as those imagined by Stephen Oram as he stood in line at his local supermarket.

For the author and full-time civil servant, it’s a question of influence and power. “I see self-checkouts as a symbol of people being too focused on targets and not understanding that it destroys human contact,” he says.

“Observing the depersonalisation – the way these machines constantly repeat the same phrases and shop assistants shout at you to use them – I wondered how this flaw could go further.”

That routine encounter spawned Fluence, Oram’s second book, which combines speculative fiction with dark satire to depict a world where corporations rule and survival depends on social media popularity.

While Oram admits that the absence of politicians would be a worst-case scenario, he is deeply worried about websites such as Facebook and Twitter diminishing human interaction.

“We are in danger of losing sight of the relationships that really matter if we focus on feeding social networks,” he warns. “People tend to judge influence through what you do online and judge themselves on how many ‘likes’ or ‘retweets’ they receive. I have seen teenagers getting both very excited and downhearted by reactions to their posts.”

As with many dystopian novels, themes from George Orwell’s 1984 are latent throughout Fluence. Adding to the Big Brother-like supremacy of social networks, a fascination with class status appears in the concept of ‘fluence points’ – resembling supermarket reward points, except that they decide a character’s job, living situation and wealth.

Interestingly, Fitzrovia resident Oram considers north London the perfect setting, with places such as Hampstead and Primrose Hill featuring heavily. “You have got a broad range of wealth and privilege across a very small area, so there’s a changing landscape that helps the contrasts of the story,” he says.

A central contrast is between the motivating effects of aspiration and desperation. Young ambitious Amber represents those living in Russell Brand-y parts of London, ruthless in increasing their influence. Middle-aged Martin is desperate not to drop down a level for the sake of his family. There are glimpses into which persona could prevail but, more tellingly, the novel drips with the kinds of characters you might find in a north London supermarket.

Daniel Wittenberg

Fluence by Stephen Oram is available now.

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