They Know Not What They Do is a crowded Subaru hatchback of a novel, the kind wherein the great and horrifying complexities of our world are reduced in hot thoracic cavities to sticky banality. Jussi Valtonen’s Finlandia Prize-winning novel has a hair too many concerns—expressed a bit too superficially—for any single one to hit with the conviction they require.
The novel opens as researcher Joe Chayefski finds his life’s work, his home and his conceptions of society under attack when animal rights activists ransack his lab and begin a campaign of terror aimed at stopping his research. His current family life in Maryland, where he lives with his second wife and two daughters, is haunted by his previous one. Joe left a wife and son behind after an ill-fated sojourn to Finland, and the invisible tendons of technology—both current and sci-fi, enabled in part by Joe’s own research—serve as the connective tissues keeping the woes together.
One conflict subsumes the rest of the novel—the animal rights issues; the scientific, corporate and advertising ethical dilemmas; the mental health concerns; the interpersonal fraying of lovers; the destructive power of families—that of person versus technology. Everything in They Know Not What They Do is plugged in somewhere.
There’s a Bradbury-esque quality to the suffusion of techno-horror throughout the novel, albeit one less beautiful yet desperately close to our current reality. Technology is the new nature for Valtonen’s characters, and a wondrous gadget, which resembles “a stylized vibrator,” is affixed to the flesh and flush to the nervous system behind the ear, just as Montag’s wife placed the seashells in her ears in Fahrenheit 451. This does not sound so far afield when one steps back to imagine the many curated selves we are now projecting into the world, avatars capable of doing and receiving harm yet powerless against the volume of technology’s impact on our lives.
Valtonen’s gadget is frightening not in its interface, which is the ultimate form of augmented reality, nor in its idolization, which pales to the fanaticism of some tech lovers. No, the fear stems from what drives it, from where its floating screens and virtual reality modules derive. It’s a user interface as fast as reflex and more invasive than surgery, a complete surrendering of one’s inner self to algorithms, databases, someone on the other end of the line.
The horror comes, of course, from the realization that Valtonen’s characters are simply experiencing, via the frictionless desires of their creator, a future which is already happening, albeit in a less dramatic manner. Whenever one of his characters becomes lost in the online world only they can see, contracted into their corneas and frontal lobes, it is merely a poetic extension of the systems which catalogue us today for the sake of convenience, commercialization, connection and the future.
But the plot hinges on crucial human errors; it rests, dying, at the hands of a distracted person. For all of the noise surrounding the technology, for all its impact on relationships, the crux of the book is decidedly human. The people which avail themselves to it are more important than whatever the future may bring.
The horror and hope comes from realizing that this part, too, is already real.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayis, and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, he is a contributing reporter to A Beautiful Perspective and has been seen in The Atlantic, Hazlitt, VICE, Jezebel, Sports Illustrated, VICE Sports, Creators, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.