A few years ago, an adolescent boy with whom I liked to discuss books told me about a novel he had read called, The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks. The book, I found, was absorbing, a real page-turner.
It was about a group of Travelers, endowed with the ability to move among a set of dimensions known as the Six Realms. They were opposed by the Tabula, which was making every effort to exterminate them, thereby eliminating access to, and thoughts about, alternative realities. The Travelers had, in every generation since whenever, been gloriously defended by fierce female warriors — Jedi types — known as Harlequins.
The Tabula takes its name from the idea of the tabula rasa — the blank slate. If the human mind is a blank slate, it can be completely defined, programmed, rewritten and when need be, erased, by those in control. Erasure — physical as well as mental — is the Tabula plan for both Travelers and Harlequins.
Some Harlequins, and at least one Traveler, survive the various contests of the first novel, and make it into Hawks’s new book, The Dark River. In it, we learn more about the grid, the worldwide system of computerized surveillance and domination orchestrated to near perfection by the Tabula.
John Twelve Hawks himself has made a point of living off the grid, out of sight of surveillance cameras and satellites. Despite the fact that his books are published, by Random House, with fanfare, the author himself remains secluded, off-grid. (It’s easier, it seems, to have lunch with J.D. Salinger).
All this came back to me today when I heard the news: The Bush administration has decided to channel materials from America’s surveillance satellites to law enforcement agencies, in order — right? — to defeat terrorism.
Call me paranoid, but knowing the FBI et al will now be able to see me, in the flesh, with all the astonishing clarity and detail afforded by satellite surveillance, doesn’t make me feel safer. It makes me feel monitored. It makes feel Big Brothered.
London, I know, is already fitted out with too many surveillance cameras for residents to dodge. Bully for the Brits. They don’t have a Bill of Rights, and seem willing to pay the price.
Then there was a recent article by Keith Bradsher about what’s happening in Shenzhen, China, “a city of 12.4 million people.” Everyone there is compelled to carry a computerized ID that includes “not just the citizen’s name and address but also work history, educational background, religion, ethnicity, police record, medical insurance status and landlords phone number. Even personal reproductive history will be included . . . ”
I’d love to get a taste of real Chinese cuisine –not the watered down goulash that is supposedly all we can expect here. But not enough to live in Shenzhen, a pilot project, it seems, for Big Brother Mao, Big Yellow Emperor, big Chinese Tabula.
The theme of the John Twelve Hawks books is timely and compelling. It’s easy to see why an adolescent boy — for whom
surveillance means parents — would devour them. But there’s plenty for the rest of us to consider.
I’d like these books better, more completely, less dubiously, if John Twelve Hawks hadn’t injected The Ark of the Covenant, yet, into the plot of The Dark River. The Ark of the Covenant isn’t off the grid. It’s bull’s-eye Hollywood. John Twelve Hawks can’t really imagine that his mostly young readers haven’t been exposed to the humorous, sophisticated Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford treatment of the subject in, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
That Hawk’s resorts to such corn, I’m really sorry to say, makes it much harder for me trust him.
Harvey Blume is a writer living in Cambridge and Brooklyn. His interviews appear regularly in the ideas section of the Boston Globe.