After reading the hype regarding Peter Carey's Amnesia being a book focused on hacking, cyberspace, and politics I could not resist reading it at once. The back cover indicates that the novel will address the pressing question: "How did a young woman from suburban Melbourne become America's Public Enemy number one?": sound familiar? with a different gender are we talking about Assange here? Add to this the rumours (since denied) that Carey had been 'sounded out' about writing Assange's biography, and it sounds like we have a novel that will address these big questions of our time.
It starts out in a promising tone, placing the story of Gaby Baillieux in the hands of a journalist who has just endured a defamation trial, the 'famously shmabolic' Felix Moore, jaded, faded and channelling to not a small degree of one of my favourite voices of doom, Bob Ellis. A worm has entered the computerised control systems of Australian (and American) jails and detention centres, opening the doors and freeing the prisoners and detainees, announcing itself with the words 'THE CORPORATION IS UNDER OUR CONTROL. THE ANGEL DECLARES YOU FREE'. Unlike the other journalists and commentators, the narrator recognises this act for what it truly is: an attack on the US, and more conclusively, an act in retaliation for events begun in 1975, when the US (read CIA) removed the democratically elected Whitlam government.
If this all seems fairly far fetched, even for a self-declared conspiracy theorist you would be right.
We are taken on a journey through Melbourne, specifically Carlton and Coburg of the last couple of decades, recounting Gaby's childhood and her introduction through the enigmatic Frederic, to computers, online games, phreaking and eventually hacking. There are some fun moments, such as the drone disguised as a magpie, but ultimately I found the story deeply unsatisfying. For much of the book it is not clear just how unreliable the narrator has become, and how many levels of conspiracy are at work. It is nicely done, lots of references to technology, but lots of inconsistencies too. In the end we don't really answer those big questions, nor really gain any true understanding if Gaby is Public Enemy number one, and we certainly don't get any clear sense of her motivations, beyond being fairly pissed off with her parents.
This is not the novel of the internet generation and at worst makes the work of online activists seem childish and petulant. Further, although it skirts round the complexities of the Australian media landscape, it does not tackle important questions of old versus new media.
Some other reviews may be found at:
Amnesia by Peter Carey review – turbo-charged, hyper energetic, Andrew Motion, The Guardian
Amnesia by Peter Carey, book review: Echoes of Assange as author turns his sights on hacktivism
See also the 7.30 Report Interview with Carey.