Saturday, 16 October 2010

Henry Porter: The Dying Light (2009)

Henry Porter's fifth novel is intended, so the author tells us in the afterword, to fulfil three purposes. It is obviously a thriller readable as a standalone story, but is additionally intended as a contrast to his previous novel Brandenburg and as something of a political call to arms. It is set in a near future Britain, where high-powered lawyer (and former spy) Kate Lockhart returns to the country after several years working in the States for college friend David Eyam's funeral. Eyam, was a civil servant involved in security at the highest levels, but he resigned and hid himself in a tiny town on the Welsh borders before making a sudden trip to South America to be killed in a terrorist bomb attack. Kate is told that she is Eyam's heir, completely unexpectedly; and when Eyam's lawyer is killed by a sniper driving down an English country lane and she discovers that child pornography has been planted on Eyam's computer to discredit him, she realises that she has inherited not just his possessions but a dangerous secret worth many deaths to those who wish to keep it hidden.

From this point on, The Dying Light is a political thriller with a conspiracy theory at its centre, set in a dystopian Britain in which every move is watched by the authorities. The development of the systems which allow this and the accompanying erosion of civil liberties are Porter's main concern.He mentions the way in that events he was describing as he wrote the novel turned out to be true as he was writing, not a comforting prospect for someone writing a dystopia. Most of Porter's work has made me think him the natural heir to Len Deighton; but the campaigning nature of The Dying Light is more akin to John le CarrĂ©'s recent novels, such as A Most Wanted Man. The agenda may be different, but a similar sense of outrage comes through. The comparisons to le CarrĂ© and Deighton are not just thematic, too. Porter is one of the best thriller writers to emerge in the last decade.

The theme is personal freedom, and the way in which the British public  have allowed their politicians to whittle away at personal rights to an unprecedented degree: the United Kingdom is now the most heavily surveiled nation in the world, so that  our rulers know more about what we do (theoretically) than those of North Korea or China. As with the curtailment of liberty elsewhere in the Western world, the excuse used is the fight against terrorism, which is at first sight a reasonable idea but is less so when the possibility of emergency powers being abused (as has happened on a small scale with local councils using anti-terrorism powers to track down benefit fraud) or when it fails to halt attacks. The inquests into the deaths of those killed in the 7/7 bomb attack on the London underground are happening as I type: clearly the new powers and surveillance, almost all in place in 2005, were unable to save these lives. The bombers were identified on CCTV footage, but only after the attack itself took place. At the same time, the Guardian has reported that counter-terrorism would be kept safe from the government's massive programme of cuts: the UK will still be spending billions on surveillance of its citizens. (Most of the links in this post come from the Guardian not because of its political leanings, but because of its interest in civil liberties beyond that of much of the UK press.)

One legislative move which particularly concerns Porter is the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (official description / critical assessment).This gives wide ranging powers over a thirty day period to the government in the event of a disaster (natural or otherwise), removing the right to assembly, allowing movement to be restricted to and from "sealed areas" and mobilising the armed services. It didn't originally define the emergencies in which it could be used very stringently, leading to accusations that events dealt with by the emergency services as part of their normal working would be possible triggers for the act; this has since been amended. It still doesn't provide any sanction for misuse (if the "emergency" turns out not to be one). It has been described as making it possible that "at a stroke democracy could be replaced by totalitarianism".

I have gone into detail about this partly because, as Porter points out, it is important and yet ignored by those it affects. I was already aware of the surveillance, but had never heard of the Civil Contingencies Act: this is a novel which made me want to write to my MP.

The relationship with Brandenburg is that the earlier novel is about the fall of the Soviet bloc communism, so is about the gaining of rights, while The Dying Light is about the extinction of rights. To me, the title and theme suggest Dylan Thomas' famous lines (about death):
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
To give away our rights without protest is to gently acquiesce in the dying of the light of our civilisation.

Edition: Orion Books, 2009
Review number: 1408

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