Subversive Fiction

“In a free society, citizens are entitled to know more about the government than it knows about them; in authoritarian regimes the reverse is true.” 
— JR Finlay

“Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence – those are the three pillars of Western prosperity. If war, waste, and moneylenders were abolished, you’d collapse. And while you people are overconsuming the rest of the world sinks more and more deeply into chronic disaster.”
— Aldous Huxley, Island


The Fourth Realm Trilogy by John Twelve Hawks
The Traveller, 2005
The Dark River, 2007
The Golden City, 2009

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, 2008

At the beginning of the new millenium, I used to keep a file of notes and references that I called privately “the coming police state” folder.  In it I kept citations on various police and state abuses, and worrying political and social trends.  I was interested in it both as a citizen and because it might be a source of ideas for a novel along the lines of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Huxley’s Brave New World.

With the onset of the “War on Terrorism” — a war against an abstract noun — and the use of that justification to erode many privacy, constitutional and natural human rights, I gave up on that file.  Events overtook and overwhelmed it.

But I still believe JR Finlay’s observation above is true.  And that Huxley’s description of the West is true so far as it goes — his character from the novel Island (published in 1962) doesn’t point out that the three pillars have a finite period of strength due to their corrosive internal contradictions. Then there comes the destructive reaction wrought by the state and corporations, including mass surveillance, in aid of desperately propping up those pillars.  While the overconsumers themselves are sinking more deeply into chronic disaster.  (Yes, I am also likely an overconsumer.)

The Traveller

John Twelve Hawks is an enigmatic figure who wrote the Fourth Realm Trilogy in the guise of a modern fantasy about fighting back against a centuries old secret society called the Tabula who believe in the importance of control and stability, and who are advocates of a kind of extreme utilitarianism.  (Oddly enough, a different brand of utilitarianism is part of the vision of Huxley’s utopian Island).

This secret group is intent on creating “a society where all individuals become so accustomed to being watched and monitored that they act at all times as if they were being observed and are as such completely controllable” (Wikipedia).

“John Twelve Hawks” is a pseudonym of a man (we presume), who is said to only communicate remotely with his publisher and who apparently lives “off the grid.”  He is not a native Indian, and says he chose the name due to a real experience with the hunting birds.

In the first book, The Traveller, we are introduced to the themes that play out in the trilogy.  Although the story elements include other dimensions, a warrior elite and the Travellers — men and women of great decency and spirituality who add to the world a creative, uncontrollable spark abhorred by the Tabula — it is the specifics about the modern surveillance state, the “Vast Machine,” that truly intrigue.

The author says that all the sophisticated computer and camera capabilities he describes are either in existence or on the verge of actuality.  These include the proliferating use of closed circuit cameras with sophisticated automatic algorithms that identify faces, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) built into everything from phones to cars, the proposed development of so-called “safe” cities with complete wireless video surveillance, unmanned aerial drones for civilian observation, mobile phone tracking, tracking by radio frequency ID devices, unreviewable no-fly lists, comprehensive DNA records, roadside fingerprinting, automatic licence plate recognition systems, credit card information vulnerability, remote installation of programs on your computer by authorities to monitor activity, surveillance mining of websites, emails, and phone calls and the requisite, often automated, computer systems to keep track of all this information and to flag it for those with access.  If you get caught up in any of these databases or programs, you have no means to check or correct the information.  Even to know of or or question them may become illegal or eventually indicative of your terrorist or criminal tendencies.

In a recent article, Twelve Hawks wrote about video surveillance:

“Some of them are ‘smart’ cameras, linked to computer programs that watch our movements in case we act differently from the rest of the crowd: if we walk too slowly, if we linger outside certain buildings, if we stop to laugh or enjoy the view, our body is highlighted by a red line on a video monitor and a security guard has to decide whether he should call the police.”

More than any specific technological use of cameras and other surveillance technology, it is this mindset writ large that most troubles me.

All of this is open to abuse by the state and other entities.  As the saying goes, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me….  And that other saying about power corrupts….

Going on with Twelve Hawks’ trilogy, the first volume ends with a cliffhanger, as the dedicated bodyguards who protect the almost extinct Travellers from the overwhelming power of the Tabula attempt to find a place of refuge.

In the second novel, The Dark River, the Tabula (also known as The Brethren) continue to manipulate people and events through the power of their vast computer information system.  A Cain and Abel storyline begun in the first book heightens with two opposed brothers, one on either side of the battle.  There is travel to a parallel world to further the hero’s survival and that of the forces of good.  The book has been described as “part The Matrix and part Kurosawa epic.”

The third and final novel, The Golden City, didn’t receive as much praise as its predecessors, as it leaves some of the action behind and becomes more discursive.  The ending (or lack of it) left many unsatisfied. Yet its description of the ascendancy of what Orwell called Big Brother gives one motivation to examine the fate of what many of us in the western democracies take for granted as our rights.

I’ll leave the trilogy with this quote from the last book:

“…We have no knowledge of how the information is being used or who is using it.  Criminals can duplicate our identities. Corporations can manipulate our spending behavior.  Governments can manufacture opinions and crush dissent. We are seen, but they are faceless.  We are asked to live in a transparent house, while the forces of power are concealed.”

This is probably why I always object to handing over my postal code and even e-mail information for the benefit of some retail outlet.  A small and petty rebellion, true.  I may now be on a list for anti-social tendencies because of it, I suppose.  (I’m only half-joking.)

Little Brother

Cory Doctorow is another author who is as interesting as what he writes.  He has become a well-known science fiction author, blogger and journalist who received his high school diploma from what has been described as an “anarchistic free school” in Toronto and attended four universities without getting a degree.  An opponent of Digital Rights Management (DRM), he has given away his books digitally while still publishing hard-copy versions.

His novel Little Brother is one of these.  The novel tells of several teenagers in San Francisco who after a terrorist attack on the city and its transit system defend themselves against the Department of Homeland Security’s onslaughts against the Bill of Rights. It was a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the science-fiction equivalent of an Oscar.

In his Introduction to the novel, Doctorow writes:

“… kids were clearly being used as guinea pigs for a new kind of technological state that all of us were on our way to, a world where taking a picture was either piracy (in a movie theater or museum or even a Starbucks), or terrorism (in a public place), but where we could be photographed, tracked and logged hundreds of times a day by every tin-pot dictator, cop, bureaucrat and shopkeeper.  A world where any measure, including torture, could be justified by just waving your hands and shouting “Terrorism! 9/11! Terrorism!” until all dissent fell silent.

“We don’t have to go down that road.”

He also notes in an addendum, now that he makes his home in England:

“In early 2008, the head of Scotland Yard seriously proposed taking DNA from five-year-olds who display “offending traits” because they’ll probably grow up to be criminals.  The next week, the London police put up posters asking us all to turn in people who seem to be taking pictures of the ubiquitous CCTV spy-cameras because anyone who pays too much attention to the surveillance machine is probably a terrorist.”

In the novel, four teenagers are truant from school and playing an alternate reality game when the terrorist attack occurs, destroying the San Francisco Bay Bridge.  When the teens didn’t behave exactly as authorities expected, they are held by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as enemy combatants.

Some of the teens are released after being forced to sign a statement that they were held voluntarily.  The main hero discovers that his computer has been bugged by DHS.  He doesn’t dare dismantle the bug for fear of being arrested, so he takes an Xbox and uses a heavily encrypted version of Linux to create an online network undetectable by DHS.

Aftewards he discovers that the DHS is slowly turning the city into a police state, and detaining people arbitrarily.  He gains other young recruits and they set up an underground resistance movement opposing DHS actions.

They develop new uses of existing technology to defeat DHS monitoring and throw the authorities into an uproar.

Our hero is eventually caught after he meets and gives information to an investigative reporter friend, and is imprisoned and tortured by the DHS until he is rescued by the California Highway State Patrol after the governor of California acts on his reporter friend’s news article.

Publishers Weekly in a review said the novel was “filled with sharp dialogue and detailed descriptions of how to counteract gait-recognition cameras, RFID’s (radio frequency ID tags), wireless Internet tracers and other surveillance devices. This work makes its admittedly didactic point within a tautly crafted fictional framework.”

Fellow author Scott Westerfeld put it well:

“A rousing tale of techno-geek rebellion, as necessary and dangerous as file sharing, free speech, and bottled water on a plane.”

The novel has gone on to a stage adaptation.  Fans have translated it into other languages.  Doctorow has just sold the sequel to publishers while at the same time making the audiobook version of Little Brothers freely available.

In the end, this post really hasn’t been a book review of these novels, but more about the recognition that the tradition of Orwell and Huxley lives on, and that current events make that tradition even more important.



Additional Notes:

Related to John Twelve Hawks

For an interesting, if unused, forum, check out Resurrection Auto Parts: Serving Travellers Everywhere…. click anywhere on the site.

Twelve Hawks shares a website where he occasionally writes, called We Speak for Freedom.

He also has a site related to the trilogy at Random House Books.

Related to Cory Doctorow

Doctorow’s site is at Craphound.Com….

If you want to read, for instance, an interesting article on amateur use of “dronecams” to chronicle the Occupy movement better than your typical news organization, see this on Boing Boing where Doctorow is a co-editor.

For more free e-books by Doctorow, go here.

Real world surveillance

How the surveillance industry markets spyware to governments….

Millions of smartphones’ keypresses monitored….

In the Guardian….

At the Ministry of Tofu….

The RCMP with egg on their face

On the Voice of America website….

On the Bloomberg website….

For more information

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4 Comments on “Subversive Fiction”

  1. kiakanpa Says:

    Hi there, you may be interested to know that John Twelve Hawks is currently taking questions on the We Speak for Freedom website. If you have a question for John, please check it out:

  2. fencer Says:

    Thanks, kiakanpa, for the information….


  3. […] Subversive Fiction […]

  4. […] falls into a genre I call “subversive fiction” for suggesting that freedom is important as a right and not a privilege bestowed by others.  […]

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