Henry Porter’s The Bell Ringers is set in England’s future, the very immediate future. Next week? Next month? Next year? It isn’t science fiction; rather, it’s a chilling prediction of what could happen should a government begin using for nefarious purposes the digital data routinely collected about its citizens. As the narrative suggests, an enormous amount of information about each one of us is already available, stashed and not particularly protected in powerful state-owned computers. It would only take a few villains in high places to turn our lives upside down. When this novel begins, that’s exactly what is happening.
Enter the Bell Ringers to the rescue. That’s the code name for the ordinary men and women attempting to block governmental efforts to control their lives. Created by David Eyam, an out-of-favor ex-intelligence officer, and coördinated by his one-time lover, Kate Lockard, a group of Bell Ringers (disguised as just that, British church bell ringers gathering ostensibly to make skillful sounds) sets about exposing the dangers of digital surveillance and then doing something about rectifying their world.
Other reviewers have described that world as Orwellian, but in many ways I found Porter’s city and countryside more chilling than that described in 1984. It’s altogether more familiar, more immediate, more accessible. What sets The Bell Ringers apart from other novels of its type is the way it pictures an England that is all too real, one where information gathering—about our movements, our purchases, our likes, our dislikes, our politics—is occurring in the here and now, and where the shadow of intrusion and the specter of manipulation is just around the next corner.
To be sure, The Bell Ringers is a thriller that contains many action-packed, page-turning scenes. I couldn’t stop reading. But the novel also offers a good many things to think about along the way. What we don’t know about digital surveillance, or what we ignore, or what we just plain take for granted may turn out to be very naïve indeed. If Henry Porter’s world is any harbinger of what might happen in the United States as well as in Great Britain, we may be in for some nasty surprises. The Bell Ringers may be the soothsayer of our future. –A.R.