Surveillance Novels
Not Science Fiction but Reality

Digital surveillance is also a topic in literature.
Digital surveillance is also a topic in literature. | Photo (detail): © M. Klawitter – Fotolia

Surveillance scandals are being uncovered one after the other. In literature too, the topic is more relevant than ever before. In some novels the authors write about monitoring done by companies and states – and in so doing they find themselves outstripped by reality.

Can you hide in a world full of cameras? In ZERO. Sie wissen, was du tust (ZERO. They know what you are doing), a novel by Austrian writer Marc Elsberg, the protagonist certainly tries: Cynthia Bonsant, a British journalist, is investigating a popular internet platform called Freemee. The company gathers and analyses data as a service. Bonsant’s findings alarm a few people who know more about most other people than the latter would care to believe. As a result the journalist is hounded.

ZERO was published in May 2014. Just a month later Elsberg was able to read in the newspaper that one of his ideas, the manipulation of the Facebook news feed by the social network itself, was long since reality. Two years previously the company had shown some of its users only negative status reports from friends and others only positive ones, the aim being to examine the effects. This tardy revelation developed into a scandal, indicating that many science fiction scenarios are not science fiction any more because its characteristic plot is beginning to take on real aspects. As a result, Elsberg could say about his novel, “Basically it’s a description of the present. When I started writing, it was already evident that the compilation and evaluation of personal data, for example with the Fitness apps, was sure to gain ground.”

Literary and political protest

The surveillance of fitness data is also an important motif in the novel Corpus Delicti by Juli Zeh. Mia Holl, the protagonist, lives in a health dictatorship: everyone must adhere to the allotted amount of sleep, do sport daily, keep an account of their eating habits and have their health checked regularly. Breaches are noticed because of the total surveillance – and are severely punished. The author and lawyer Juli Zeh denounces these methods not only in literary form. In 2009, together with Ilija Trojanow, she also wrote a polemic entitled Attack on Freedom. Security Mania, Surveillance State and the Reduction of Bourgeois Right.

In 2013, after Edward Snowden uncovered the NSA scandal, Zeh and Trojanow became the faces behind the international Writers Against Mass Surveillance appeal. More than a thousand authors joined in the protest against surveillance by states and companies. In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Zeh and Trojanow explained that only very few authors would not have wanted to participate. One author from Russia thought that surveillance was a good thing. Another declared that people had to get used to the fact that privacy no longer existed in the 21st century.

Overtaken by reality

The British science-fiction writer Charles Stross opted for another form of protest, announcing that there would be no further volume of his popular Halting State Series stories about misdeeds no one had ever known about before. “Snowden’s revelations have destroyed all my ideas for a third volume,” he declared. Even his notion of spies secretly snooping around computer games has become reality: the online role play World of Warcraft has already been infiltrated by the secret services.

The German journalist and author Tom Hillenbrand created a completely different world for his dystopia Drohnenland: the book describes Europe as a surveillance state par excellence, where drones execute people from the air. Even children are killed because a simulation of their personal future based on collected data indicated that they could become delinquents later in life. Computer games also fit well into the world of Marc Elsberg’s novel. “In my works people subject themselves voluntarily to surveillance so as to receive advantages like amusement or money,” he says. “I don’t need violence for my scenarios. It’s much more effective just to allay people’s suspicions.”

Anyone who hides is conspicuous

Some readers of ZERO wrote to the Elsberg saying that they intended reconsidering their use of the internet and their mobile phones. But the author has bad news for them. “Probably the more I try to conceal myself, the more I am likely to be watched,” he explains. “It’s the same effect as with mineral water. If I suddenly encrypt my emails I’m no longer part of the water but become a bubble, and therefore much easier to see.”

Book recommendations

Marc Elsberg: ZERO. Sie wissen, was du tust. Blanvalet Verlag, 2014
Tom Hillenbrand: Drohnenland. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2014
Juli Zeh: Corpus Deliciti. Schöffling Verlag, 2009