Review: Blind Faith by Ben Elton

3 July 2008

Ben Elton has been getting bleaker and bleaker.  Blind Faith, which is an update of and homage to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, pulls together a number of trends and shows us where they could go.  These include the surveillance society that Britain has become, with CCTV and mobile phones allowing the authorities to follow and trace your movements; ubiquitous use of social media including blogging (compulsory) and always-on video chat rooms; global warming that has flooded London; the attacks on science represented by those who believe in faith alone as the answer; and the dumbing-down of entertainment and social intercourse that Elton has charted so brilliantly, especially in Dead Famous and Chart Throb;  As the blurb has it “In this world, nakedness is modesty, independent thought subversive, and ignorance is wisdom”.

Trafford Sewell is the modern-day Winston Smith, a “civil servant of sorts” who works for NatDat, the National Data bank, which collects and stores “Every single recordable fact about every single person in the country…Every financial transaction, every appearance on a CCTV camera, every click on every computer, every quirk of every retina, every filling in every tooth, captured and entombed in the mainframes of NatDat…”  But Trafford wants some degree of privacy, somewhere he can think thoughts that he doesn’t have to blog about.  He would also like some privacy with his wife Chantorria, and to protect their baby, Caitlin Happymeal, in a world where vaccination is abhorred, and child mortality is rife.  He hesitates to Tube the birthing video and is reprimanded by his Confessor.

Trafford does find a way to think for himself and to learn about ideas and science, and above all about reason.  Just as Winston Smith saw that the proles provided hope for the future, so Trafford sees that reason and the theory of evolution are the way the world will be saved – perhaps not soon enough for him, but the tyranny of the Temple will certainly be overcome.  It would be interesting to spend more time on the parallels with Nineteen Eighty-Four.

I said that Ben Elton was bleak, but what reinforces the bleakness is that the awful world of Blind Faith is already happening, in parts, and it is easy to see us going there.  Elton shows us that the trends he works on are related and interconnected, and come down to the importance of ensuring that individual thought can be maintained; that privacy, whether physical, mental or spiritual is essential to us; and that blind faith should not trump reason and science.  There are lessons for how we use technology to support society, and importantly there are unforeseen (but perhaps inevitable) consequences that will arise whenever new ways of communicating and sharing become universal, and subject to human behaviour.

Blind Faith by Ben Elton, published by Black Swan (paperback, 2008), ISBN: 978-0-552-77391-1

Other books by Ben Elton – Stark (1989), Gridlock (1991), This Other Eden (1993), Popcorn (1996), Blast from the Past (1998), Inconceivable (1999), Dead Famous (2001), High Society (2002), Past Mortem (2004), The First Casualty (2005), Chart Throb (2006)

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Review: Camera by Eva Marie Liffner

13 January 2008

camera.jpgIt’s taken me a while to get around to reading Camera but I’m glad that I have now finally done it. This is one of those book which forces you to read between the lines to gain the full flavour of the story – it allows the reader to accept the writer’s assumption of awareness and attention to what she and her characters are saying and thinking. It is a quite remarkable achievement.

The story moves seamlessly between the 1980/90s and the past. Johanna Hall, a Swedish photographer, is tracking down some photographs that she has inherited , along with the rest of his property, from her uncle Jacob Hall, also a photographer (not sure how the dates and relationships all work out here) who was living in London in 1905. While there, he got involved with the Theosophist Society, including activist Annie Besant and the Reverend Charles Leadbetter, and also with W T Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette who arranged for the photographer Herbert Burrows to train Joseph in his craft (it’s not referred to in the book, but in fact a Herbert Burrows – not a photographer – was once, apparently, Annie’s colleague and lover).

Anyway, it seems there is something dodgy going on between Charles Leadbetter and a group of boys who are staying in the theosophists’ house, with Leadbetter claiming that they are being used in experiments to photograph souls, but the evidence suggesting something rather more mundane and sordid. Bodies and disappearances become involved, along with a damaged child, sister to one of the boys, and it is Joseph’s and later Johanna’s investigations into what went on that take the story forward.

Throughout the book there are number of recurring images – dreams, sharp acidic sharp smells, cats – that establish linkages of a sort in the narrative. The story moves around in time and place but in the end does not claim to resolve anything. Towards the end, Johanna muses:

I have had time to think and to accept that it is impossible to find answers to every question. Some facts make no sense in any context. It’s like having sorted two jigsaw puzzles found in the attic all mixed together in the same old box of sweet-smelling cardboard. There will be pieces that just don’t fit, and to expect otherwise would be silly.

Johanna goes on to her next project of recording graves about to be dismantled, and it’s not just the biographical details that interest her, but the choice of stone, the position of the grave and details like symbols of death. Details that in the end are probably pointless and of interest to no-one, but in their recording is an activity, like sorting the jigsaw puzzles, that fills in time.

Despite the lack of any real resolution, or perhaps because of it, I found this is a very satisfying book to read. The mix of real, historical figures and places and the imagined is so well done that it sends you off on research into those people and places. The fascination of photography and what the image is capable of telling you that the eye might not otherwise see, provides the basic driver of the story.

Camera by Eva-Marie Liffner, translated from the Swedish by Anna Paterson, Vintage. ISBN: 0 099 45519 6

Other books by Eva-Marie Liffner – Imago, Drömmaren och sorgen