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Surveillance Dystopia

In Sam Byers’ future, tech utopians and right-wing populists find common ground.

Tech futurists like Ray Kurzweil have predicted that what they call ‘the singularity’ — the total inter-connectedness of human society through digital technology — will usher in a utopia. More recently, some on the left have enthused about the potential of digital automation to finally realise Marx’s vision of liberating workers from drudgery. Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion imagines a bleaker yet more immediately plausible scenario. Set in a post-Brexit near future, the story is centred on a housing estate in the fictitious English town of Edmundsbury, where a nefarious tech company called Green is conducting a complex data harvesting scheme in cahoots with populist politicians. ‘Efficiency’ is the new watchword for a national regeneration initiative amounting to little more than a souped-up, aggressively managerial version of the status quo. The result is a surveillance dystopia where citizens and workers alike are perpetually monitored by the panoptic gaze of technology.

The novel’s principal protagonists are a left-wing journalist called Robert; his partner Jess, a feminist academic researching online misogyny; and Trina, a coder turned would-be whistle-blower at Green. Robert inadvertently endears himself to right-wing trolls by writing a well-meaning article about the plight of a white pensioner in an Edmundsbury estate. This brings him into conflict with Jess and exposes the fault lines in their relationship. As Robert’s career takes off, Jess looks on aghast: ‘Which was worse, she wondered: being unable to recognise her partner in what she read, or recognising him all too well?’

Perfidious Albion has one eye on the future, but large swathes of it fall squarely within the satirical tradition. The contours of the contemporary landscape are easily recognisable in Byers’ portrayal of the online culture wars, complete with trolling, doxing, and chauvinistic rancour. The novel’s cartoon villain, Hugo Bennington, is a barely disguised caricature of Nigel Farage. The steady trickle of novels inspired by Brexit or the rise of Donald Trump has yielded underwhelming fare, perhaps because the ironic distance we expect of a literary novel is incompatible with the kind of politically committed response demanded by the moment. This may account for the tonal inconsistency of Perfidious Albion’s narrative register, which flits between winking black comedy and sci-fi seriousness, lending the prose a somewhat uneven texture. Whether it’s caught between two stools or a deft and thematically apposite fusion — because, after all, the blend of tragedy and high farce has been a defining feature of our times — is a matter of taste.

Perfidious Albion’s premonition of an unholy alliance between techno-utopians and right populists may well prove prescient. Even if it doesn’t come to pass, Byers has done a fine job of anatomising the anxieties of a generation caught in the headlights. Which of us hasn’t, like Jess, been sent into a head-spin by the way online life has whittled away at ‘the ultimate illusion of all distinctions, the transparency and porousness of all the borders we erect to keep things separate?’ By the end of the novel, Byers’ mordant exuberance has all but dissipated, giving way to a sombre pessimism as Trina broods over the false promise of the digital age: ‘Viewed from a distance, the future was vast and open. Once you were in it, it was tiny.’