In a nutshell, this readable novel (Orion, 2009) is about the not-so-gradual elimination of civil liberties in the UK over the past few years. The author imagines a state controlled by a corporation, which has government contracts (or even more influence, possibly) to infiltrate all informational databases, so that people’s every transaction and movement can be monitored to make society safer. The book is successful in conveying this concept, for the author is clearly on a hobby-horse and is very knowledgeable about the topic, describing several small but chilling examples to draw attention to what current legislation allows the UK authorities to do to individuals to make their lives miserable or even ruined. There is truth in this premise, as we who live in the UK have all experienced limitations in our privacy and personal freedom over the past 10 years in irritating ways – and the prevalence of CCTV has been oft-noted. Porter takes the premise even further, one example being the security services’ use of “drones”, tiny unmanned aerial vehicles that can follow people, or that hover over a meeting and spray the participants with a substance that enables them to be tracked subsequently. Drones, of course, do exist, so Porter has not extrapolated by much.
The book would be just a lecture without a story to it, of course, and the action is kick-started by an inquest into the death of David Eyam, who has previously been head of the government’s joint intelligence committee but who suddenly quit and travelled to Colombia. While he was there, he was killed in a (presumed) terrorist bomb attack. One of the people attending the inquest is an old college friend (and more, it seems) of Eyam’s, Kate Koh (Lockhart), now a high-flying corporate lawyer: the opening section is mainly about her reactions to Eyam’s death, events at High Castle (the village on the Welsh borders where Eyam had retreated after his “retirement”), the bequest he made her in his will, and her gradual uncovering of a mass conspiracy aided and abetted by various locals who knew Eyam. There are obvious similarities to the David Kelly case, which adds versimillitude to the Eyam part of the plot. In a parallel story, we see events from the point of view of the prime minister John Temple and his various flunkies and cronies. Temple starts out as a charismatic Blair-like person (though one suspects of the other main political party) but evolves, or perhaps I should write mutates, as the book progresses. Again, the “insider” view of Chequers, Whitehall and the PM’s style of government is fascinating, at least until it all goes out of control in the last third of the novel.
Although I enjoyed the book, and am glad I read it, for me it is not successful in two main respects. One is in its characterisations – everyone, particularly the male characters, is cut from the same template. The other is in the pacing – far too much of the plot is told in the form of “retrospective” meetings between various people who tell each other what has happened, what they think might happen, or what is about to happen. We read a lot of detail and are told things emphatically about a topic (for example the film that is shown at the inquest) only to have it all turned on its head later on in a rather perfunctory way. At the same time, the big “upcoming plot twist” that occurs about half-way through is far too obvious, and the main concept of the novel (what was Eyam really up to?) is too heavily signalled so the reader basically waits for everything to emerge, rather than experiencing much suspense. The goodies are thoroughly decent, being well-read academics who use libraries and do things like write books on the mathematical knowledge of the Assyrian empire in their spare time; the baddies are two-dimensional evil types. The security services are either fiendishly efficient (eg in the death of someone immediately after he tells Kate some essential information), or dreadfully incompetent, at the behest of plot requirements. The most successful part of the plot concerns the red algal crisis (very much in parallel with the 2007 UK foot and mouth virus outbreak that turned out to be due to contamination from a research laboratory) – but much of the main theme, concerning surveillance of people from High Castle and so on, seemed overlong and slow. It is intriguing to compare the premise, and (not entirely convincing) climax, of this 2009 novel with last year’s (2010) and ongoing real-life Wikileaks approach to public disclosure of classified or otherwise “secret” information.
Despite the clunkiness, particularly of the final chapters, I enjoyed the book because of the author’s sincerity about his cause, which is to issue a wake-up call to us all for our complacency in allowing our governments to pass legislation that takes away so much of our privacy and basic rights to individual freedom. The afterward, invoking George Orwell, among other points explaining the title of the novel, is well worth reading.
From the Observer review of the book: “For the past two decades, Observer journalist Henry Porter has been a tireless watchdog snapping at the heels of successive home secretaries who have relentlessly dismantled the hallowed structure of civic freedoms. The government’s strategy has been to implement incremental and surreptitious incursions in the hope that no one will notice. Rarely are the separate legislative dots joined up to reveal the full picture of oppression.”
I read the Kindle e-version of this book which I purchased myself.
Read other reviews of this novel at: Material Witness (the excellent review that convinced me to try this novel, even though I don’t usually read “spy/politics” thrillers), the Observer (review by the well-known liberal lawyer Michael Mansfield), The Independent, and Reviewing the Evidence, where reviewer Sharon Wheeler (as usual!) nails the book by calling it a “curious mix of clumsy and downright chilling”.