Written by Bruce McCabe — The scariest thing about dystopias – worlds which are defined by totalitarianism and dehumanisation – is how closely they resemble our own. The scariest aspect of novels such as George Orwell’s 1984 is not the strangeness of the worlds they represent, but their familiarity. Readers could see the spectre of totalitarianism in Orwell’s novel because in the 20th century totalitarian regimes were a real threat. In a similar way, the real shock of Skinjob comes not from the fear of the surveillance state it represents, but the possibility that we’re not far off that world ourselves.
The year is 2019, and hand-held field polygraph devices known as HAMDAs have just been approved for use by US law enforcement. These devices can tell whether a suspect is telling the truth, leading to skyrocketing arrest rates, coupled with plummeting trust in law enforcement agencies. The public see the HAMDA operators (referred to, without affection, as ‘plotters’) as brutal thugs taking away the last of their freedom, while the rank-and-file law enforcement see them as trouble because of the scrutiny they bring with them. People feel that if polygraph interrogation is good enough for them, it’s good enough for the police too, so wherever a plotter goes, they’re followed closely by integrity officers, making sure cops play by the rules.
However, like most new developments, the technology is only as good as the person holding it. Enter Daniel Madsen, a HAMDA officer who is working his way up from arresting small time drug dealers to serious criminals. When he’s on a case he can go weeks without getting proper sleep. He does what it takes to get the arrest. When a bomb goes off in a building in the middle of downtown San Francisco, Daniel is called in to take part in the investigation despite the local police commander’s distrust of federal plotters.
The target of the bombing was a new kind of brothel – a dollhouse. It’s where realistic sex robots called skinjobs satisfy the baser desires of men. Naturally there are moral objections to the concept, particularly from NeChristo, a new breed of church which is run like a well connected business. The sore point for the San Francisco police department is that two of their own were in the dollhouse when it blew up. One of them was Adam Carmichael, a uniformed officer who has been having an illicit affair with Sergeant Shahida Sanayei. She’s a senior officer in the surveillance department, where police track almost every security camera using face matching technology and trackbacks, capable of following a civilian’s every move.
With eyes everywhere, it should be simple for the police to catch the bomber, but as Daniel and Shahida delve deeper into the case, they realise it’s not that simple. They have footage of the bomber walking in, but none of him coming out. Despite all the modern police equipment at their disposal, they have to bend the rules in order to look for the man responsible for 12 deaths. As they dig deeper and deeper they earn some powerful enemies. Intent on finding the truth, they go their own way, in conflict with the police as well as the powerful companies on both sides of the moral divide.
The idea of a surveillance state doesn’t require a huge stretch of the imagination to be believed, and McCabe does well to not over embellish the description of the technology involved. There are moments, however, when the description goes too far, taking too much of the novel and distracting from the plot. For the most part McCabe settles for a world that is eerily like our own, creating a believable near future, which makes the action all the more exhilarating.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars