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.


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