Sunday, 16 August 2009

HENRY PORTER'S DYING LIGHT: Welcome To Police State Britain

The Dying Light
Henry Porter
Orion £12.99 ISBN9780752874845

The problem with writing conspiracy novels, even one as gripping as The Dying Light, is that the conspiracy itself is always the strongest point: the ways in which the powerful conspire against you, use the machinery of the state, the inevitable betrayal by someone you trusted, the dark and shrinking corner into which you are inevitably backed. As a result, the weakest bit is often the resolution, the ways in which the intrepid hero/es manage to beat the system, and emerge victorious on the other side.

It's precisely because Henry Porter's portrayal of near-future Britain, in which the roots of the surveillance state which we have watched being planted all around us for the past decade have finally begun to blossom, is so chillingly accurate and believable, that this problem becomes, in narrative terms, almost insurmountable. Porter has been an eloquent and tireless campaigner against the unchecked growth of surveillance, the consolidation of power into the executive, the abuses of police power, and the diminishing of what British 'subjects' used to believe are their common-law rights as 'citizens'. This means that his picture of near-future Britain is not only chilling, but carries the ring of authenticity: it is really only a small step removed from what any of us have encountered at some point, dealing with officialdom and bureaucracy, and it makes Porter's problem of creating a believable fight-back against it all the more difficult.

His hero, David Eyam, the man committed to destroying the system, happens to be, as unlikely as it sounds, a former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and he has just been blown up by a terrorist bomb in Colombia. Luckily for the story, Eyam is also incredibly wealthy, as well as being incredibly bright, incredibly well-connected, and relatively attractive. In short, not so much deus ex machina as deus ex Oxonia; hardly extraordinary, just your typical Oxford grad. So too his friend Kate Lockhart, former British intelligence officer turned American lawyer, whose backstory seems contrived primarily to help cast a Kate or Cate or Rachel or Kiera in the movie deal. Both these themes are reinforced by the book's cover image, which shows a woman, cycling through what looks like an Oxford college, looking back over her shoulder in the best gothic novel fashion.

In the end, however, Porter displays the power of the state so convincingly that he needs another insider, a third, more powerful, character to work against it, and here Peter Kilmartin is less a character than another Oxford type: the researcher into ancient history who just happens to be at the center of the government. Along the way you also get one powerful English solicitor, a few nobel members of the House of Lords, and one fatally attractive 'St. James Square' Library librarian without whom the whole thing would fall apart. I must keep my eyes open next time I'm in the London Library.

The plot also requires the presence of an outsider on the villain side, an international businessman even worse than the Rupert Murdoch figure who winds up opposing him; he can order the killings that it seems the British government itself wouldn't. But you never know; Porter's thinly disguised portrayals of Tony Blair and Jack Straw catch each's messianic Stalinism perfectly; they, not the evil outsider, are the book's most chilling villains, to the point you can almost, if not quite, believe one of the PM's PR aides also turning against him.

Some of the state's tactics are familiar from the news, others from fiction. The trigger for the Prime Minister's invoking the Civil Contingencies Act (2004) to assume dictatorial powers, is the spread of algae in the water supply. The process by which this gets blamed on terrorists reflects exactly the 'sexing up' process by which the vague possibility of Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction became an intelligence-backed certainty. It also mirrors the US anthrax scare, which far from being a second terrorist assault post 9/11 has very quietly turned out to be a deliberate leakage from a US germ warfare facility. On the smaller scale, the security services download child porn onto Eyam's computer, a sure way of discrediting him, especially with papers like Murdoch's News Of The World ready to 'name and shame'. This tactic featured in Paul Adam's Enemy Within; where, despite the character's good fortune in being able to prove the computer had been tampered with, his marriage suffered. We never see the same sort of personal angst in Ayem, and the issue is resolved just as neatly by the culprit's confession. But this is one small area that suggests, in real life, such things are not cleaned up so easily, a small metaphor for the greater problem.

Porter, in his afterword, calls this book part of a pair with Brandenburg (2005), which was set around the fall of the Berlin wall, and dealt in part with the apparatus of the East German security state. But I'd liken it more to his overlooked Empire State, which dealt directly with the issue of torture. There Porter was making the same point: that a society's willingness to compromise on its morals, its freedoms, in the name of security, was at heart evil. That, in the end, the victory against the seep of totalitarianism seems unconvincing doesn't it make it any less suspenseful, which is the second triumph of this novel. The first, of course, being the very clear warning signals it sends up for anyone who cares to notice.

NOTE: This review also appears at

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