Friday, 4 September 2015

Book review: Surveillance, Bernard Keane (2015)

This brisk and clever novel is the first of its kind I have found that understands social media and what it can represent in the world, which I have to remark at the outset is a huge relief as I had been starting to despair of any contemporary author being able to adequately deal with the new information technologies that are changing the way the public sphere operates in society.

The other thing to say at the beginning is that this is a comedy - albeit a sometimes dark and chaotic one - although the heroes (there are three - two women and a man) do not get married at the end, as happens in traditional comedies. What they get instead is something that the novel affirms is possibly even more prized than romance in our modern world. This is a knowing novel by an intelligent and thoughtful man. Bernard Keane is of course a journalist with Australian news outlet Crikey - one of the newer media properties, and one which emerged only with the development to ubiquity of the internet. (I should mention that I have written stories for Crikey in the past.)

Behind the complicated actions we read about in the novel there is a motivating factor exactly like the one we saw in that other recent cultural property, the movie Jurassic World. It's a simple premise but no less believable for it. There is a large and powerful company (here one named Veldtech) that wants to increase revenues in a cash-constrained marketplace and it will do anything it can to achieve that goal. In order to do it, in the novel a bunch of clever operators in the company decide to use a "back door" to a software system that the company had previously sold to the government, to steal official secrets, in order to create panic within the government and motivate it to spend more money on cybersecurity - the market area in which the company operates.

Hero One is Kat Sharpe, a journalist-cum-social-media-expert, who is contacted by an employee within Veldtech looking for a sympathetic media outlet to use to publicise the products of the company's clandestine activities and propagate the scam. Hero Two is Emma Thomas who works for Veldtech and who daily battles depression. Emma is the Veldtech employee who contacts Kat Sharpe after with her boss inventing a fictional hacker group on which to blame the leaks of official secrets. Hero Three is Nathan Welles, a law graduate who works for Veldtech in government relations and who finds out about the deception - which is a secret even within the company - accidentally.

The novel is also a comedy of manners. The roles of tea and sausage rolls in society form part of its remit, in the same way that Tolstoy used to manage similar things in the novels he wrote 150 years ago. We can still read those things in Anna Karenina, for example, and similarly Australian readers in 150 years's time will be able to scrutinise the various cultural meanings possessed by finger food and hot beverages in our society today. The even tone of the novel - using techniques pioneered by Jane Austen - is furthermore leavened in the early stages by the inclusion of a fair amount of sex. And while I read some on Twitter complaining about this aspect of the book, I think it has a useful purpose.

Keane uses relationships like he uses any cultural artefact: to develop character. So the way Nathan Welles approaches affairs for example is quite different from how it is done by Kat Sharpe. These affairs help to define the characters in complex ways, and are utilitarian in that sense. It is a skill to turn these mundane things to a larger purpose, and although with its short chapters the book sometimes felt like a collection of Doonesbury cartoons, overall the quality of art is very high.

On the matter of the public sphere and how information is handled - and sometimes distorted - during its manipulation by various actors who live their useful lives as part of the economy of information (and with social media now, that can basically include pretty much the entire population of a country, or of several countries) you'd have to say the book is a triumph. Events furthermore move very quickly and they are propelled even faster than might otherwise be the case because of the strength of the characters that Keane invents. The twist in the tail is masterful, equally as good as anything by any of the top thriller writers, and a lot funnier. This is a very good read. Highly recommended.

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