Written by Tom Chatfield — Crime fiction, true crime and non-fiction books have raised the alarm about how the strengths and benefits of the Internet can be turned to the dark side. We’ve seen these nefarious capabilities move from science fiction to technothrillers to non-fiction to the morning newspaper. It’s a treat to read a debut novel about such exploits written by someone who is not only a technology expert but an entertaining storyteller.
Azi Bellow is a 34-year-old hacker living in East Croydon, South London, and holed up in a garden shed with a load of computer equipment. What he’s working on as a hobby is a long con, infiltrating a neo-Nazi group called Defiance through a fake persona – Jim Denison – he’s constructed for himself, complete with backstory.
Ultimately, Azi hopes his penetration of Defiance will enable him to derail a charismatic right-wing German politician. He buys identification for Jim on the Dark Web, which in his handy definition is where you go to get whatever society doesn’t want you to have. By fall of 2013, Jim is practically real. Chatfield’s writing is full of sly commentary on technology and human (mis)behavior that will leave you laughing, crying… or both.
In Azi’s world, it’s hard to know whom to trust, but one online friend he does trust is Sigma. She returns his trust, and when she finds herself in trouble, asks Azi for help with a dangerous project. At his request, she sends him information she’s compiled, which shows that 50 confirmed Islamic martyrs are not actually dead, but have acquired new identities. She’s assembled plenty of evidence on these cases and photographs showing their continued above-ground existence.
She believes they obtained the fake IDs from Gomorrah, the darkest corner of the Dark Web, but the terrorists are onto her, and she’s on the run. She wants to meet Azi face-to-face but he declines. Almost immediately Azi’s inner sanctum is invaded by a woman named Anna who makes it clear that he must meet Sigma after all and follow through on her request for help.
Anna is pretty sketchy herself, but the mysterious ‘they’ she works for have been spying on Azi and know exactly what he’s been up to. Not all of which is legal. Or acceptable to the authorities. Especially with the framing she gives it. She’ll throw him to the dogs if he doesn’t cooperate. She tells him to meet Sigma (whose real name is Munira Khan) and get to know her. All he needs to know is that Munira has asked for his help, and she needs it urgently. Anna and her colleagues will backstop them.
Thus is the thrilling cat-and-mouse game launched, with the urgency of Munira’s situation prying Azi out of the shed into the real world. He and Munira flee England first for Berlin. Later he seeks refuge in Athens and, finally, Silicon Valley. It’s hard to stay one step ahead of Gomorrah. Chatfield captures enough of the sights and culture of these various places to make them believable backdrops for the action.
While Anna and her team aren’t very likeable, Azi is, along with his venal childhood friend Ad and the desperate Munira. They’re all experts at manipulation, establishing what’s described as, “…a context within which someone’s only choice is to do what you want, even if (especially if) they believe the decision is up to them.” The question of who is manipulating whom inevitably arises and surprises.
Tom Chatfield is the author of several nonfiction books (and TED talks) exploring digital culture. He’s been a visiting associate at the Oxford Internet Institute and advises numerous organisations about technology and media. He was a launch columnist for BBC’s worldwide technology site, BBC Future. This is Gomorrah is his first novel.
In the acknowledgements he says, “The real world is much, much stranger than anything I can come up with.” Further, he says, “Unlike reality, fiction has an obligation to make sense.” And for most of This is Gomorrah, Chatfield’s constructed reality does make sense, but by the time the technology becomes too murky, you will have already decided to trust him and just go with it.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 5 Stars