Reviewed by Craig A. Smith
After a deadly virus in Vancouver, the Canadian government suspends civil rights to ensure the health and safety of citizens. Given the situation, the people of Vancouver are willing to allow the government to take far greater power over their lives. Although the disease was contained before reaching epidemic levels, “the Scare” opened the door to a redefining of privacy and intrusion.
Such is the premise of Nick Simon’s debut novel Nothing to Hide, which addresses issues of state surveillance and invasive social media in contemporary life. The narrative follows William Potenco, an emotionally fragile, perpetually anxious, young personal data harvester, who is in love with a webcam girl named Julia living in Montreal. Fighting with his conflicting desires for success and escape, Will remains continuously frustrated by authority, but he is unable to confront the authority figures in his life, nor is he able to articulate his frustration with these figures and the work he does for them. This changes with the hiring of Tom Vickers, a jaded dropout from a PhD program in History. Tom awakens Will to the problems of the kind of work they do for Eureka! and gives Will a taste of life outside the grey, sanitized monotony he has become accustomed to.
Nothing to Hide is narrated from a number of perspectives. Sections are presented to us through the observations of Doctor Officer Elias Degair. Degair is the official in charge of monitoring Will’s reluctance to conform to antiseptic mediocrity. With the new privileges given the Public Health Bureau, Degair monitors Will’s “illness” by watching his every movement through cameras installed across the city, and recording each click on his keyboard through Real—a massive social media corporation, and the ultimate panopticon dominating human interaction for the characters in this story. As Degair and his team of health officials struggle to create a strictly sterilized utopia with a contented and tolerant populace, Will, with the encouragement of Tom, is seen more and more as a threat to this utopia.
Simon is at his best as he explores the dangers of government and social media control of personal information and its use as an unproblematic resource. His critique of North American life hints at the racism and class issues lying just beneath the surface of tolerant and politically correct liberal society. His story deftly drifts between serious criticism and amusing caricatures of liberal values. When Simon’s characterization of Vancouver society slides into blunt satire, the results are often hilarious, such as when the ubiquitous “No Smoking” signs are replaced by the dysphemistic “No Smokers” signs.
Witty and biting, Simon’s novel is a delightful, well-thought out criticism of contemporary Canadian values. Anyone who has witnessed the unending efforts to sanitize life in North American cities will applaud Nothing to Hide.