What’s making this possible is cryptography. Cryptography is also central to one of the most interesting developments in the world of money, and that is bitcoin. I’m not sure whether bitcoin is likely to be the most consequential of all these developments: peer-to-peer lending, and non-bank payment systems of the M-Pesa type, seem to me at least as likely to change lives, especially the lives of the poor. But there’s no denying that bitcoin is the best story.
Bitcoin is a new form of electronic money, launched in a paper published on 31 October 2008 by a pseudonymous person or persons calling himself, herself or themselves Satoshi Nakamoto. Note the date: this was shortly after the collapse of Lehman Brothers on 15 September, and the near death of the global financial system. Just as the Civil War was the prompt for the United States to end private money, and the crisis of Kenyan democracy led to the explosive growth of M-Pesa, the global financial crisis seems to have been a crucial spur, if not to the development of bitcoin, then certainly to the timing of its launch.
In “Zero K,” two central characters seek to conquer death not by outrunning it but by submitting to it: They plan to be “chemically induced to expire” and frozen at a supersecret cryonics compound so that one day they might be resurrected — through a yet-to-be-perfected science involving cellular regeneration and nanotechnology. One day, humans (at least rich ones) will have the option of being reborn as new and improved beings implanted with memories of their choice — music, family photographs, philosophical writings, “Russian novels, the films of Bergman, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky.”
Now comes Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Eligible,” which moves the story to that roiling hotbed of societal intrigue, the Cincinnati suburbs. As in the police lineup scene in “The Usual Suspects,” in which the characters recite the same phrase in wildly different ways, the fun lies in the variations on the theme. How can the author take a classic script — basically, a silly woman plots to marry off her five unwed daughters, couples fall in and out of love, and situations are dissected by a narrator of uncommon wit and perspicacity — and make it her own?
As a critic, I’m used to championing greater options for artists. We’re lucky to live in a time when TV creators have freedom from arbitrary constraints. But more and more of my TV watching these days involves starting an episode, looking at the number of minutes on the playback bar and silently cursing.