Bite-size Books: Aurora

HBook cover: Aurora - Jo M Thomasello and welcome to Aurora, the social platform that shines a light for everyone! Don’t forget to fill in your profile with a little more detail to help us people you may know profile identify you. Would you like to play this classic fantasy game that will help us harvest more data where your quests occur in the real world?


The world being a place that loves to serve up unnerving coincidences, WordPress decided to offer the prompt of what technology would you be better off without as I set up this post. Seems appropriate, given we’re here to talk about (fictional) social media algorithms…

Aurora is my first encounter with Jo M Thomas’s fiction, having previously enjoyed her editorial contributions to African Monsters. It inhabits the edge of science fiction, set in a 2017 that diverges from reality only in so far as the social media platform it focuses on never existed…probably. One of the recurring features of Aurora is the selection of news headlines it serves up; enough were familiar that I accepted them all as gospel, but it’s entirely possible Thomas made a great deal of them up. To me, this is one of Aurora’s strengths: it’s all so very, very credible.

The novella is related through logs detailed a series of social media interactions. Siward creates a new account on this ever-so-friendly social media platform. Before they even click on a news story, their data has been used to build up a narrative shell describing who they are based on information surrendered (name, location, gender) and inferred (tech base, time of day, confirmed location) at sign up. Aurora offers up a daily fortune cookie, validating assumptions based on Siward’s response to the glib one-liner.

If this sounds far-fetched, trust me, we’re strictly in the realm of reality so far.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase you’re the product but not really understood what that entails, then Aurora may be eye-opening. Every action Siward takes is automatically analysed, adjusting scores against a series of characteristics that can be sold to advertisers and other parties interested in communicating with particular target audiences. Everything contributes to the profile: Siward comments on news stories, has conversations with other users (including That Guy who cannot help but find fault with everything some unknown person on the internet does) and eventually decides to try playing one of the games Aurora hosts: a quest-based fantasy rpg with a twist – the quests all take place in the real world but require digital evidence.

It’s genius, from a data harvesting perspective. At the urging of the Valkyries, Siward share’s point-in-time real-world location (check ins); photographs; and connects to a digital wallet so Aurora can track purchases. It’s not subtle. It’s not intended to be – and if it makes even one person think twice about how much they share online (especially ‘just for fun’), I suspect Thomas will be pleased.

As Siward’s quests become shadier – trapping him between two feuding players, whose real-world intentions may or may not be legal, Aurora becomes less predictable. Volatile, even. Has Siward managed to confuse the algorithm or is there more going on than pre-coded responses?

I found myself unexpectedly compelled by this odd little story, given how little it gives you to grab on to in terms of character or plot. But I was curious to see Siward’s emerging profile and what weird quests he would agree to take on for Brynhild; and wondering about the relevance of the (fictional) hacks and emerging viruses that were Siward’s main interest in the news. By the time the plot twisted to Siward trying to entice Brynhild – and Aurora – to talk to him, I was ready for this additional narrative strand and where it led.

The result is a quick, sharp read that switches from themes of privacy to one of emerging sentience as the light is shone on Aurora itself. If none of this is acutely insightful (although I am perhaps hyper aware of issues surrounding personal data given my work in advertising and tech), it is well-packaged and the escalating drama of the gaming element adds spice. I chortled at the way Siward’s online buddies cheered him on, and was amused by the varied reactions to the reveal that the information Siward shared at sign-up wasn’t entirely accurate. While I found the final act a little rushed, I appreciated the fundamental hopefulness of the outcome. A fun, diverting novella all the more interesting for the way in which its told.