A penny for your thoughts makes it very hard to get by in this economy.
Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers is a thoroughly modern book, and one that is only made better by the charlie-foxtrot that is the current state of our political landscape. Brexit has happened, Twitterstorms define the cultural landscape and in the background an outwardly benevolent corporation with ulterior motives harvests data on everyone. Were this written ten years ago, many of the events in the book would’ve been considered too ridiculous, though now they feel they could have come from BBC News.
All these hot button issues are distilled into the hotbed that is the town of Edmundsbury. An old housing estate is earmarked for demolition to be replaced by luxury apartments, and only a few holdouts remain. This gives thinkers and influencers an opportunity to grandstand while advancing their own personal agendas, from this world’s stand in Farage, Hugh Bennington, to the morally flexible opinionist Robert Townsend, to the far right hate group England Always.
There are five POV characters from across the ideological spectrum, who start intersecting and affecting each other as the story continues. Byers finds a way inside the head of each of them, understanding their goals and insecurities, making you feel a degree of empathy for even the more despicable characters. Some are more fleshed out, depending on their importance to the narrative, but even the least developed stock, old racist character Darkin gets small moments of vulnerability. He is powerless, used by all the other parties and lives in fear of enemies, both of his own imagination and the corporation looking to evict him.
The greatest character arc probably belongs to the columnist Robert, even if his girlfriend, Jess, is nominally the main character. An interesting focus of the book was the prominence given to opinion pieces and bloggers, even if they are treated as pompously self important, posting into an echo chamber (ironically the only one reaching the wider public is the one with a column in a print newspaper). Robert starts as a mostly limp liberal, but over the course forgoes his morals one by one in the search of more clicks, his descent arguably swift, but each seemly wrong decision given plausible rationale.
His main antagonist is a woman who comments mean things on his posts, and who turns out to be none other than his girlfriend, Jess. A twist in the tale is that the main internet troll in the book is a woman, created as a response to horrific online abuse she received before the story begins, online misogyny and racism another element of Perfidious Albion’s modern narrative. The way Byers reconciles this left of field turn and the reasoning behind why she does it is fascinating, fleshing out a fully 3D character, even if the relationship itself never seems to click. The cover art is a modern Tower of Babel, with the characters’ inability to relate to each other, often resorting to online personaes resonating throughout.
The only black character, Trina, works for the corporation behind the luxury development and inhabits a world of corporate productivity and vacuous self motivating seminars ramped up to 12, but the standout storyline is the pairing of the dinosaur Hugh Bennington with one of these productivity gurus, Teddy, in the bemusing world of politics. They are the perfect double act and foil for each other, and would easily feel at home in The Thick of It or Veep, with razor cutdowns and joyful dialogue. When Teddy is introduced calling, “Hugotron. The Hugh-ster. How goes it?” I immediately knew his character.
That’s how Perfidious Albion excels, it is stop for a few moments to breathe funny. From fantastical throwaway lines, “You’re literally too sweaty to be satisfactorily restrained,” to real world observations about how modern life has perverted common sense, “Teddy didn’t look at the ambulance but instead checked his tablet for news of it. - ‘I’m not seeing anything that would suggest an ambulance.’ - ‘I’m literally looking at the ambulance, Teddy.’”
Perhaps my main criticism of the book are its last couple of chapters. It drops the humorous tone in favour of an exposition heavy dialogue in the style of the villain vainly explaining their master plan. It didn’t help this was in the storyline I personally had connected with least - the reveal that the company is collecting immoral amounts of data not exactly a shocking revelation nowadays - and its purpose seemed more to set up a sequel, which left this story as a whole feeling a little incomplete.
This aside you’ll be entertained throughout with this delight of a book, making you laugh and think about some of the most important issue we face in the 20-teens. The sad thing is that while it’s such an excellent satire, the fact it is so spot on makes you despair even more.