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book review
  • Title: This Eden
  • Author: Ed O’Loughlin
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: House of Anansi Press
  • Pages: 400

From the very start of This Eden, it’s clear that Michael is being watched. His first date with his girlfriend Alice is reconstructed for us through digital surveillance. The details are cobbled together from social media posts — a snowball fight rendered in vivid detail as if we were right there with them on that snowy Vancouver day. The most unnerving part is we don’t yet know this omniscient narrator’s intent. Is it to help or to harm? The feeling of discomfort only deepens when it’s revealed that Alice has, in fact, died. The circumstances are sudden, mysterious, and concerning, and send Michael hurtling down the coast to Palo Alto, Calif., in search of answers.

Though This Eden is set against a backdrop of hacktivism, cryptocurrency, and the spectre of surveillance and Big Tech, you don’t necessarily have to understand the nuances of these worlds to appreciate the rich world Irish-Canadian author Ed O’Loughlin has built. The book dwells less on the technology itself than on power and those who wield it; crucially, it asks us to consider just how many of the decisions we make are truly our own. And it imagines a world where our prevailing networks are made up of people rather than machines.

We learn that Alice was a hacker in the original, enthusiast sense of the word — the sort of person with a bedroom full of computers, a sprawling online life, and an interest in technology’s intersection with privacy, human rights, and social justice. In other words, she’s the sort of person who normally wouldn’t be working for Campbell Fess, sinister CEO of the global consumer tech company Inscape, whom she hates. So when Michael learns Alice has been working on a secret project for Fess, something to do with cryptocurrency, he’s incredulous. After Alice’s death, a grieving Michael knows he has to find out what — and why. But whatever trouble Alice was tied up in before she died, it’s not long before Michael is tied up in it too.

He meets Aoife and Towse, supposed associates of Fess, who whisk him out of Palo Alto almost as soon as he arrives. Much like our mysterious narrator, their motivations are also unclear. Do they actually work for Fess, or against him? Can Michael trust them? Both seem to be spies, of a sort — Towse, an insouciant government agent with a flair for telling stories, some of them possibly true, and Aoife, disarming when it suits, aloofness masking deeper worries about the life she left behind. The threat of imminent danger and the possibility that Michael might finally learn what led to Alice’s death set the plot in motion, propelling the trio forward almost ceaselessly across the world.

Much like the novels of William Gibson — to which This Eden owes a great deal — this is a book that delights in the thrill of the chase and a love of liminal spaces. From the U.S., our protagonists flee through Uganda, Gaza, Egypt, through Europe and, finally, to Ireland. They travel by plane, boat, car, and bus - whatever keeps them off the grid. It’s easy at times to get lost in the chase, to remember what’s at stake the further we get from Alice and Fess, but the moments of explosive movement and evasion are when This Eden is at its best. Even as O’Loughlin pulls back the layers of secrecy and obfuscation, revealing more of Michael and Alice, Aoife and Towse, it’s clear not everything is as it seems.

The scope and scale of tech company surveillance is treated almost as a given; of course their computers and apps and internet connections are being tracked. Instead, it’s the careless, errant swipe of a credit card that poses the greatest risk of being found. Bank transfers and credit card payments have always been tools of surveillance, long before Google and Facebook arrived, and it’s refreshing to see the spectre of our financial systems in the spotlight. For Michael, this is an eye-opening experience, as he begins to see the world as Alice once did.

As Michael, Towse, and Aoife remove themselves from one network, they enmesh themselves in another — decentralized, underground, a world that runs on cash instead of credit. Every step of the way there seem to be people ready to help, and it can sometimes feel a little too easy, too convenient — inevitable, even — that Michael, Aoife, and Towse always seem to have a willing ride, safe passage, a place to stay. You can’t help but wonder whether someone is doing more than just watching, but also influencing their choices, nudging them forward, playing people like pieces on a chess board. But to what end? The thought certainly occurs to Towse, too. “There’s an old rule of thumb in intelligence,” he says, quoting author Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. “Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence; three times or more, it’s enemy action.”

Again, intent matters. Technology we use to protect ourselves can also be used to attack us. Technology invented with the best of intentions is inevitably abused. People are what separate the two extremes, and we trust those with power, the people in control, to do the right thing. But of course, it’s never that simple. Is it justifiable to use or repurpose potentially harmful technology if your intentions are good? To outsmart Fess, our trio turn his tools against him. But whether it’s good or even moral to do so is a question that looms throughout.

The Garden of Eden is often used as a shorthand for paradise, invoked in the pastoral sense. But just as important in the story of Eden was the loss of innocence that came from eating the forbidden fruit. When Alice is still alive, she tries to explain to Michael everything wrong with our financial status quo — the surveillance, the censorship, the centralization of a system designed for a control. “Cash is our last freedom,” Alice says. “Without it, whoever controls the machines controls all the money, and controls all of us.” Michael doesn’t understand, not then. But when he does, it becomes impossible to see the world any other way.

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