SURVEILLANCE by Bernard Keane

SurveillanceBernardKeane24261_fExpectations are a nuisance aren’t they?

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 [2015]
ISBN: 9781760113858
Length: 529 pages
Format: Paperback

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3 thoughts on “SURVEILLANCE by Bernard Keane

  1. The premise of this one sound very interesting, Bernadette. Still, as you say, if there’s a factor (In this case, the sex) that overwhelms everything, I can see how it would pull you out of the story. It’s a shame, too because I was interested in this one, just on Keane’s credentials in the non-fiction world.


  2. I had thought of getting this book as the provenance of the author was so good and the basic premise of big (or small) businesses manufacturing a situation where government would want/need their services is a good one – but…Your comments about the sexual content have made me think twice ( I am not a prude and don’t mind sex in the right context) indeed I laughed when I read your comment ‘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.’
    A friend who is a literary agent in the UK told me that some publishers ‘demand’ a certain quota of raunchy stuff every so often, and so some authors inject them in to a perfectly good book just to get it published…no idea if that is true, or if it pertains to this book.


    • I’m sure I’ve read books where the sex was incorporated for that kind of purpose (sell sells and all that) but here there is a bit too much of it for the author to have inserted it as an afterthought. I wondered if I was just getting too old or something but when I went looking for reviews I found most of the fellow book bloggers I trust who have read it also make mention of it and only one of those (the one I linked to) was in a positive sense. The rest were as perplexed and/or put off as I was.I did think I wouldn’t have been nearly so annoyed by it all if there wasn’t so much infidelity as well – it was just tawdry in the end.


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