-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson–
Undeniably, we in the West live in an age of information, or readily-accessible and frequently-shared data. As the early twenty-first century progresses, we have increasing instances of leaked secret information, intelligence agencies monitoring our communications, and companies changing the ways they can use customers’ personal information through their privacy T&Cs (or insisting they won’t sell it on). All of which is to say nothing of people’s desire to share occasionally profound, occasionally mundane, occasionally intimate, personal information over social media, nor the ubiquitous CCTV camera. This, then, is the inspiration behind OR Books’ short story anthology, Watchlist, edited by Bryan Hurt.
It is the sort of proliferation of data that Cold War intelligence agencies would have loved. Indeed, Watchlist opens with Robert Coover’s slightly Cold War-esque story, ‘Nighttime in the City’, and several of the others have a Cold War feel, though they’re set some decades later. Jim Shepard’s ‘Safety Tips for Living Alone’ is a classic of Astronauts’ Wives literature, except the husbands are off in a US Navy radar tower in the North Atlantic, listening out for Soviet bombers. The tension, sense of impending disaster and feeling of remoteness from the action despite the emotional power of the story are all finely-tuned.
Despite the fall of Communism, Western democracies still face a nebulous threat to their existence (internally and externally), and so those intelligence agencies are still keen to tap into our myriad data streams; only the day before I wrote this, British agencies admitted that the Wilson Doctrine, protecting Westminster MPs from surveillance, was no longer in force. One lawyer’s defence that there’s so much ‘data flowing along the pipe’ as to make it unintelligible reminded me of ‘Ether’ (Zhang Ran), one of the longer-form stories in this anthology and one that makes much of the idea that a government might consciously make the effort to monitor and censor small details of individual lives. With echoes of Orwell (inevitable in a surveillance-themed anthology?), ‘Ether’ explores a society sunk deep in apparently banal conversation and meaningless protest, enlivened by the appearance of peaceful subversion – and a closing revelation that upends all that has gone before while offering a stark warning on contemporary society.
Cory Doctorow’s ‘Scroogled’ is an example of the modern Cold War story, in which characters find themselves unexpectedly enemies of the state based partly on their internet browsing history. It’s genuinely chilling in its reminder that the likes of Google have reams of personal data about their users, and only human conscience (and perhaps the odd bendable law) to stop them using it how they want.
Many of the stories here a futuristic, science-fiction or speculative aspect, often extrapolating future possibilities from present realities – in ‘Scroogled’, the first extrapolation is the idea that the US has outsourced border control to Google, on the basis that they Do Search Right. That in itself is eerily plausible. Sometimes, though, the best stories are the ones that keep the observation theme on the periphery, along with their science-fiction aspect, and instead focus on what the observing and the technology actually does to people. Steven Hayward’s ‘Strava’, for example, features a smartphone app that lets you follow the cycling routes of your contacts, and attempt to beat their speeds. Around that, it’s a really well paced story, with a drip of information and clues that culminates in a chilling ending, possible only because of the observational app.
‘Strava’ is, in its subtlety, therefore, unlike some of the other stories – ‘The Taxidermist’ (David Abrams), or ‘Coyote’ (Charles Yu), for example – where spying and observational paranoia are the key focus. The magical slant of ‘The Taxidermist’ is interesting, but like ‘Coyote’ (set inside a CIA-type office, where everyone watches everyone else) and others, it seems a bit of an obvious response to the theme. Stories like ‘Strava’ or Randa Jarrar’s ‘Testimony of Malik, Israeli agent #287690’ (a sweet and deftly handled story of xenophobia and paranoia, reminding us that such things aren’t limited to the West), or Alissa Nutting’s ‘The Transparency Project’ (in which a woman is almost literally opened up for long-term medical observation), impress because they take that extra imaginative step away from the simpler response to the theme.
Implied by ‘Scroogled’ is the other aspect of mass surveillance in the West: advertising. Not all organisations are watching us for subversive behaviour, many are watching for buying habits and commercial opportunity. This is maybe best in Juan Pablo Villalobos’ ‘Terro(tour)istas’, in which there’s a fine line between being marked a terrorist and being targeted for tourism ads; are you Googling that landmark because you want to visit it or to blow it up?
It’s not all organisations doing the spying (we’re quite capable of giving information away over social media, of course). Both ‘The Taxidermist’ and Lincoln Michel’s ‘Our New Neighbourhood’ delve into the petty judgements and neighbourhood snooping of smalltown America – though it applies to most parts of the West. That second one is a properly good story almost along Hot Fuzz lines, with an obsessive desire to maintain house prices and win a form of Best Kept Village competition. The gradual build of surveillance technology and neighbourhood fallings-out is well-handled, funny and comes with a neat little twist.
As with any diverse anthology – 32 stories here, by ‘persons of interest’, as Hurt calls them, in borrowed intelligence agency terminology – there are weaker moments. Some entries suffer from telling the story from the edges, an effect, perhaps, of using form to reflect content and have the reader observe the story remotely. In the case of ‘California’ (Sean Bernard) and ‘Buildings Talk’ (Dana Johnson), that doesn’t really come off; Mark Irwin’s ‘The Gift’ and Lucy Corin’s ‘The Entire Predicament’ founder in similarly obtuse waters. ‘Lifehack at Bar Kaminuk’ (Mark Chiusano) has a good stab at the idea of sharing digital content and the effect for commercial interest, but the plot all seems to take place offstage.
That said, with some work from the reader, Chanelle Benz’s discursive (and implausibly-titled) ‘Adela, Primarily Known As, The Black Voyage, Later Reprinted As, The Red Casket Of The Heart. By Anon’ pulls off the idea of remotely observing the narrative. It does so with the unusual, if not unique, device of a plural collective-narrator, who fashion narratives from observable facts. They don’t always reach the right conclusions, but do reflect the basic storytelling instinct of humanity at large, and their weakness makes them all the more endearing.
Those collective-narrators eventually become agents in the narrative, changing it unintentionally. After Aimee Bender’s ‘Viewer, Violator’ gives us a more explicit use of the observer effect, Watchlist closes with ‘Thirteen Ways of Being Looked at by a Blackbird SR71’ (Paul Di Filippo), which serves as a handy microcosm of the anthology at large. As the title suggests, there are thirteen very short stories, all featuring a different extrapolation of modern surveillance and attempts to either to evade or enhance it. Alas, there are no Blackbird SR71s, but who needs a spy plane when there are fellow humans around?
Di Filippo gives us aliens, invisibility cloaks and, finally, the fear of God as ‘the Big Spook, the deific NSA in the sky’. Perhaps, Watchlist finally suggests, we in the West can never be truly alone and unobserved.