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Privacy Pop – Top 12 works of fiction

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Themes of privacy, surveillance and identity feature prominently in many science fiction novels. In fact, others have compiled entire lists of privacy-themed sci-fi fiction.

With so much choice, it was tough to narrow down our list. As well, we wanted to include other literary genres– young adult fiction (Little Brother), children’s novels (Harriet the Spy) and historical fiction (Le crime d’Ovide Plouffe).

We’re certain there are many more suggestions spanning the list of literary genres – we invite you to read through our list, and tell us about your own favourites in the Comments below.

  1. Foundations by Isaac Asimov:  A seven-volume series organized around the notion of “mathematical sociology” - where one can predict the behaviour of a mass of people if the quantity of the mass is very large.
  2. Earth by David Brin:  Brin’s novel includes many of the same themes around technology and surveillance that he later expounded on in The Transparent Society.  Released in 1990, Earth is also notable for predicting several technologies that have since come into common usage: the World Wide Web, e-mail spam, and cameras mounted on eyeglasses.
  3. A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick:  The film adaptation of this book made it onto our list of Top Ten Films. A Scanner Darkly is an interesting critique of law enforcement investigation and technology.
  4. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow:  Following a 9/11-like situation, citizens are under extreme surveillance and their information is mined by government.  Little Brother is an excellent discussion of the effects of a surveillance society.  Its sequel Homeland was just released in hardcover.
  5. Blind Faith by Ben Elton:  Satire set in a dystopian society where the human fascination to share information about ourselves with others is taken to extremes.
  6. Harriet the Spy by Louise FitzhughA girl’s diary is lost and found, and in the process much is revealed.  Young adult story about information collection shows the effects of information on the collector, on those whose information is collected, and the impacts of transparency versus hidden surveillance.
  7. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: Considered one of greatest novels of the 20th century, Brave New World is often compared to George Orwell’s 1984 (below).  A key difference in Huxley’s dystopian society is that its citizens are controlled through psychological manipulation and behavioural conditioning. Huxley feared that our increasingly fast-paced modern society would signal an end to individual identity.
  8. Le crime d’Ovide Plouffe by Roger Lemelin:  A fictionalized version of a real case – infidelity leads to a family trip on which the airplane explodes.  Ovide Plouffe is a suspect in this novel that looks at evidence and assumptions and their intersection with humanity and law enforcement.
  9. Whole Wide World by Paul McAuley:  This critique of countermeasures takes place in a post-Infowar UK. And explore a society of persistent CCTV where information is power, and law enforcement is ubiquitous and invasive.
  10. 1984 by George Orwell:  The quintessential dystopian novel of totalitarianism and information control.  A future world of ongoing conflict, omnipresent surveillance, and the Big Brother state’s use of propaganda and mind control to create the desired society.
  11. The Blue Light Project by Timothy Taylor:  Canadian writer Timothy Taylor explores the theme of ubiquitous surveillance in his novel about a televised hostage situation involving a failed reporter and a former military officer attempting to understand and invert the system.
  12. La jalousie by Alain Robbe-Grillet:  This story is told through the eyes of an invisible narrator and jealous husband who suspects his wife of infidelity. Through the narrator, Robbe-Grillet examines the impact of surveillance and data analysis on information and perceived reality.

And finally, our list would not be complete without nods to two prolific writers whose works cement them as the godfathers of privacy-, technology- and surveillance-themed literature:

William Gibson:  The Gibson oeuvre has always included themes of technology, privacy, surveillance and security.  In The Sprawl trilogy (Neuromancer / Count Zero / Mona Lisa Overdrive) these themes are explored around artificial intelligence and online spaces.  The Bridge trilogy (Virtual Light / Idoru / All Tomorrow’s Parties) looks at the layers of technological and social intersection, but against a platform of mass media manipulation.  Finally, his Blue Ant trilogy (Pattern Recognition / Spook Country / Zero History), using a more contemporary setting, examining issues of branding, behavioural, geographic and RFID tracking; internet communication and mobile technologies.

Neal Stephenson:  Like Gibson, it’s impossible to isolate one particular book for this list. Snowcrash focuses on a future world organized and run by Big Data.  The Diamond Age looks at the role of access and information in sustaining and disrupting class and culture, while Cryptonomicon and its antecedents (The Baroque Cycle) reflect on privacy rights, global data flow, and the whole modern history of computing and cryptography.

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