"'The neoclassical... uh, the standard model of a truly free market assumes that everyone in the market has perfect information. They must know what choices they're making, otherwise it isn't a free and rational choice, right?' He raised a didactic finger, half-smiling in acknowledgement that he was about to forestall a sensible but predictable objection. 'Now obviously,' he went on, 'this doesn't actually obtain in the real world. Nobody really has perfect information. In fact, even if we make it a bit more realistic, they don't have all or even most of the relevant information. So for the market to be really free, it has to work as if everyone involved had perfect information, or at least as if they had all the relevant information. This is where the social side comes from - the state, of course along with civil society, the unions and campaigns and so on, steps in to allow people to make the choices they would have made if they'd had that information. Because these are the really free choices.'"
Ken MacLeod's 'Intrusion' is a thoroughly unsettling dystopia, not least because of its immediate relevance. Whereas many classics of dystopian fiction take a troubling aspect of their current society and turn it up to eleven, 'Intrusion' points out how many of the standard tropes of dystopian fiction are simply an accepted part of our every day lives. The world in this book, with its state surveillance through CCTV and data mining, its government-sanctioned torture and police stop and search powers, is not terrifying because it's a hitherto-unseen endgame on the path we're taking; it's terrifying because it's so damn familiar. The other thing that sets 'Intrusion' apart is that it portrays a democratic dystopia. The atrocities are not carried out by a brutal dictator crushing resistance to maintain his grip on power; they are carried out by a democratically elected government that genuinely believes it is acting for the safety and best interests of the people. Ken MacLeod achieved all of this without resorting to hysteria or soapbox preaching, with a tight plot and well drawn characters.
In the near future, a pill has been developed that prevents birth defects by rewriting the infant's genetic code in the womb. Islington mother Hope Morrison refuses to take the pill, and finds herself under increasing pressure from health workers, her peers, and ultimately the government. Not taking the pill hasn't yet been made illegal, and Hope has no religious or moral motivations for refusing to take it. Objections to Hope's decision are framed in terms of 'what's best for the child', a frequent fall back for governments and institutions that want to regulate what a woman does to her body. And so Hope's personal decision becomes the concern of child welfare services and puts her on the terrorist watch list. Geena Fernandez, a social scientist, and her activist friend Maya, take an interest in Hope's case and find a potential way out for her: her husband Hugh and her son have a gene, a mutation of rhodopsin which detects tachyons and so allows them to see the future.
'Intrusion' has some moments where it slyly pokes fun of academia, with the meta-meta-scientist winning a prize for coming to the conclusion that the only person his recursive studies benefit is himself, but at the same time it makes a serious point about how the very tools that should allow us to challenge and deconstruct hegemony can also be used to prop it up. After Geena is tortured by the police as a result of racial profiling and targeted entrapment, she turns to her academic supervisor, who as a published critic of the establishment she expects to be outraged, but he merely points out that the purpose of all his left-wing rhetoric is not to change the system but to perpetuate the system as it is, and tells her she is better off not kicking off a fuss about these things. In a direct shout out to my favourite scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Geena says to him, "They got to you, too!", and he replies, "They got to me a long time ago." I like this because it made me grin, but also because the two characters' positions reflect Winston and O'Brien's in Orwell's book whilst pointing out the differences between the dystopias in the two books. Geena's naivety has resulted in her being betrayed by her mentor, but not because he's working for the thought police, rather that his whole intellectual outlook is merely rhetorical.
The society in 'Intrusion' only works because it has the popular support of the people who live under it. Much of what makes the book so chilling is that the tech is so instantly recognisable, both in its shape - people use mobile phones, tablets and electronic glasses - and in the way that the presence of gadgets that track and log your every move is so internalised in the characters. Once Hope and Hugh are on the terrorist watch list it is of course very easy for the government to compile information from the security cameras Hugh himself placed in their London flat, their mobiles and their gadgets, to get a comprehensive picture of not just where they are or what they are doing but what they were doing and talking about in the lead up to their run to Lewis. Similarly police profiling, interrogation and torture is simply accepted as part of daily life. Out of the major characters, Geena and her colleague were tortured due to racial profiling, Maya was tortured because she's an activist, and Hugh is tortured on terrorist charges because he was carrying an air gun when he went on the run with his family. The police have the power to hold someone in custody for sixty four days without charging them, and once you are suspected of being a terrorist you can be disappeared. The government justifies this by saying it is protecting the safety of its citizens and preventing terrorism. Both Hope and Hugh reflect that, once they are caught, it doesn't really matter what they're being accused of or if legally they are entirely innocent. And, as Orwell pointed out in Nineteen Eighty-Four, you don't torture people to get information out of them, you do it to break them. Hugh and Hope are only released in the end, and their son Nick returned to them, because the discovery of the genetic ability to perceive the future, and Hugh and Nick's ability to enter and return from this future place, is more useful to the government than making an example of them would be.
And what of the Naxals, the vandals at the gate, the terrorists who have no fixed ideology but just want to burn civilisation to the ground? These are the ultimate bogeymen of the twenty first century, a convenient tool to keep the populace frightened, a name to invoke in the House of Commons in order to pass more and more intrusive laws. It's not made explicit in the novel whether or not they actually exist. However Hugh and Nick's vision of the future is of a return to barbarism, people living after a technological apocalypse. The Naxals are the ultimate negation; they are against modern technology, modern society, and the modern way of life. And ultimately oppressive regimes tend to have their own half life built into them because people don't like being treated like shit at the end of the day. Torturing innocent people breeds anger and resentment. By the end of the book Hugh has figured out how the Naxals would have to achieve their goals, and while before his experience being tortured by the authorities he would have reported it like a good citizen, after his treatment by them he has no intention of doing so.