Bernard Keane is one of three reasons I am one of the dwindling number of people left in the world who still pays for their news (the other two are also writers for online news outlet Crikey for which Keane is the politics editor). His investigation of and commentary on Australia’s political scene gives me hope that civilisation, as I am want to lament, is not completely doomed. So I was ridiculously keen to read his fiction.
Probably too keen. It’s perfectly readable but in the end was better in the promise than the delivery.
SURVEILLANCE is set very much in the here and now. A multi-national corporation that sells expensive IT security to governments around the world is doing it tough with those governments having a lot less money to spend these days. What the Australian arm of Veldtech needs is for the government to experience an embarrassing security breach of the kind that would prompt some reactionary spending to batten down the digital hatches. Pity you can’t orchestrate such scandals when you need one isn’t it? Turns out…you can.
The story that follows explores some strong themes . The ways in which big organisations – be they government or private – will manipulate their own staff and the wider community for their own ends regardless of the consequences were deftly observed. As were the roles that both mainstream and social media play in our modern world. The rapidity with which events gain and lose the public’s attention, the tenuous relationship between the truth and what is believed, the near-random way in which things can ‘go viral’ and the impact of such intensity on the people at the centre of events are all well drawn. The issue of the insidious ways surveillance is being used against perfectly innocent people, surprisingly given the book’s title, is actually the least deeply explored of all the book’s big themes, though it is certainly there.
Despite all this I struggled overall with the credibility of the book. Because of the sex. One reviewer says he thought the relationships in the book served a useful purpose. I’m glad for him but I thought they were utterly preposterous. From memory there is only one of the half-dozen romantic entanglements depicted in the novel in which neither partner is energetically engaged in affairs with other people. Or wishes to be. The romps themselves are described with much more frequency and detail than can possibly be necessary but the constant daydreaming by several characters about their married-to-other-people sex partners is truly stultifying. And I simply don’t believe that the majority of people spend as much of their time having sex or thinking about having sex as is depicted here. The world would grind to a bloody halt for heaven’s sake.
And because the thing I simply don’t believe is such a big component of the novel (honestly they’re at it like rabbits) I found it impossible to really buy into the rest of the story. Just as I would be getting interested in some aspect of the plot I’d be sidetracked by having to ponder again what grown woman spends that much time thinking about the size of her partner’s sexual appendage?
And all that sex made the characters pretty unengaging for me too. I could probably have dealt with the moral ambiguity of so many people donning infidelity with such ease, but I found their collective obsession with where the next bonk was coming from a bit naff. There’s a hefty 529 pages to wade through here and only one character – a freelance journalist who becomes the media expert on the hacking scandal that forms the basis of the plot – shows any kind of development at all. And as she is the one spending a lot of time thinking about the size of her lover’s appendage there’s not much room for it to be a terribly meaningful development. The rest are really non events. Bit players in a Jackie Collins novel rather than people central to Important Events.
I guess what I wanted from this book was be able to give it to friends who are sick of hearing me tell them why they should care about all the civil liberties we are giving up in the name of ‘security’ and say “see….this is what could happen if you don’t start giving a shit“. Alas all I can imagine most of my friends taking away from my giving them this book would be a belief I have developed an interest in soft porn.
Publisher: Allen & Unwin 
Length: 529 pages
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