Book review: 'The Bell Ringers' by Henry Porter

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By Patrick Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 1, 2010

THE BELL RINGERS

By Henry Porter

Atlantic Monthly. 402 pp. $24

George Orwell's classic dystopian novel, "Nineteen Eighty-Four," was published in 1949 and presented a future, totalitarian England in which all-powerful Thought Police demanded total devotion to the nation's supreme leader, Big Brother. War was peace in this world, lies were truth, and the individual had no rights whatsoever. It's a powerful novel, a milestone, but Orwell, deeply influenced by the evil of Joseph Stalin, painted in broad strokes. In fact, 1984 came and went without his political fears being realized, at least in the English-speaking nations.

English journalist Henry Porter's "The Bell Ringers" (published in England last year as "The Dying Light") is one of many novels that have attempted to update "Nineteen Eighty-Four" -- and one of the more impressive. But while Orwell offered a worst-case scenario of what could happen 35 years in the future, Porter is writing about what, as he sees it, is already starting to happen. He declares in an afterword to his novel, "I have not made anything up: the law is all there, ready and waiting . . . a fact that very few people in Britain perhaps appreciate." He has in mind not only the reality of England's ubiquitous surveillance cameras, but laws making possible "the suspension of travel, seizing of property, forced evacuation, special courts and arbitrary detention and arrest." In Porter's fictional England, a cynical and ruthless -- but outwardly genial -- prime minister named John Temple is creating "an utterly new species of vindictive technological totalitarianism."

In Orwell's novel, the government used two-way "telescreens" that delivered Big Brother's messages and spied on the homes of viewers. In Porter's near future -- no year is given -- the technology is far more advanced. Not only are all calls and computers monitored, but the government has supercomputers that can pull together financial statements, medical records, credit-card spending, school grades, travel records and much else about every citizen. People can be judged disloyal simply by their spending, travel and associations. Porter's hero, David Eyam, warns that "this system has begun to presume to know the intentions of every mind in the country and is penalizing tens of thousands of people with increasing vindictiveness. You see, it allows no private realm. People can't exist inside themselves."

David Eyam (think "I Am") was once an adviser to the prime minister, but when he began to grasp the full extent of the government's surveillance program, he protested, was forced out and went underground. As the novel unfolds, he is leading a resistance movement and has obtained top-secret documents that he hopes will bring down Temple's corrupt government, which works closely with an equally corrupt American corporation.

Eyam gains support from his onetime lover and close friend, lawyer Kate Lockhart, who helps organize the rebellion as he hides from government agents. The early action takes place in a rural community where people are being harassed for refusing to carry the new national ID card. They are the "bell ringers" -- people who do ring bells in church but also are secretly fighting to protect civil liberties. The prime minister, Temple, wants to call a new election to consolidate his power, but first he wants to crush the opposition. When an outbreak of red algae occurs in several reservoirs -- probably from natural causes -- Temple declares it a terrorist plot, suspends the constitution, and fills London with soldiers and detention camps. When one patriot insists that people won't tolerate mass arrests, another, more of a pessimist, says, "That's the pity of it . . . they'll think the government is protecting them. They'll be reassured." That, finally, is the question: Do people care?

This is a sophisticated, engrossing and important political thriller. Porter wants us to see that the same technological tools that can be used to fight terrorism or to make government more efficient can also, in the wrong hands, be used to destroy freedom. Perhaps Porter's most important updating of Orwell is to show how corporate money might work with political corruption to create a dictatorship behind a democratic facade. The American corporation in this novel supports charities and think tanks, but it also makes the supercomputers that endanger civil liberties, pays huge bribes to the prime minister and his top aides, and provides hit men to dispose of critics. Far-fetched? Alarmist? Who can say? Recent events suggest that we in America have at least as much reason to fear corporate encroachment on democracy as do our cousins across the Atlantic.

Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers regularly for The Post.


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