The Next Best Thing – Puncture The Screen

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writer: Emily Holyoake

Debuting as part of Chronic Insanity’s digital arts festival, Puncture the Screen, Emily Holyoake’s interactive novel The Next Best Thing explores ways of connection from artist to audience. Accessible by an online link, Holyoake uses customisation – utilising data from the audience member – to create a uniquely personal experience.

The link we are sent asks us to imagine an alternate reality, which our protagonist will have to navigate her way through. Alex (voiced by Ruth Page) has recently lost her father, and devastatingly bereaved, decides to leave her community, relocating to the City. Her home, we find out later, is a commune choosing to exist outside a City where technology oversees every aspect of its inhabitants’ lives.

Alex hands herself over to the City’s central AI system, called SAM (Social Analytical Matrix), despite her friends’ concerns that SAM is representative of a dark, secret system. Alex has to wear a tracking bracelet, as SAM monitors her heart rate, stress levels and suggests ways for her to interact with others. Alex considers the bracelet for a moment: “not tight, just an extra little weight”. She is told it is important to tell SAM the truth, as this leads to better outcomes.

We meet the City’s key players. Emma Hart (a sharply observed performance from Olivia Sikora) – who is a social media influencer and keen promoter of SAM; and Dr Morgan Bell (Ben Gilbert) a consultant psychiatrist. Alex’s integration is interrupted by a signal coming through from her friend, Zee. She believes that SAM is not to be trusted. Zee has returned from doing construction work at the SAM server building. She overheard employees talking about an upgrade, a life support system. Zee asks the question central to this novel – why would a computer need life support?

Holyoake’s novel – brought to life by Ellen Schaffert’s Anime-inspired illustrations – asks the viewer to select options, taking the story in multiple directions. As the story continues to splinter off, Holyoake underlines that the decisions we’re making also include a commentary from SAM on which option might prove most fruitful. Whether we are making an informed choice, or a guided one, mirrors the struggle Alex has in determining the truth.

A piece that brings together aspects of film, theatre and art, The Next Best Thing is successful in creating a familiar, yet altered state. The vocal performances from Olivia Sikora, Ben Gilbert, and Daniel Morgan as SAM build a sense of ambiguity and tension. The characters’ reliability shifts to the point where knowing whose information can be relied on, or even trusted, is far from clear.

The Next Best Thing asks sizeable questions about social interaction, technology and where consent and ethics sit within this discussion. The idea of manipulation permeates the novel – this is a world where we are making choices without knowing all of the rules. Holyoake’s exploration of where intervention starts and control begins hits home as you delve further and deeper into the narrative; not least as you question the path not taken.

Available here until 13 August 2021

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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