Reviewed by Frederick Vermote
From the first page of Nick Simon’s Nothing to Hide, a gripping, post-epidemic dystopian novel set in a disturbingly familiar present/future Vancouver in which civil rights have been curbed and government monitoring put in place to enforce new health standards, I was sucked in. In Simon’s Vancouver new health codes, enforced by drones and syndics have been put in place to prevent future epidemics, and people are observed through cameras everywhere by the Vancouver Public Health Bureau to make sure they comply.
Simon’s protagonist in all this is William Potenco an office worker in a small, start-up social network for intellectuals called Eureka!. In William we see all the contradictions of the outside world laid bare. While he shares his innermost feelings in his online dairy and with his best friends and his girlfriend, a camgirl named “jewels,” online he simultaneously resents the idea that the state would in anyway be interested in what he has to think or say.
William, like the system around him also excels in processing and categorizing data, both at his job at Eureka! and for a online company set up with his friends in the new virtual economy. Unknown to William, however, is that he is being watched. The novel opens and is mostly narrated by Doctor Officer Elias Degair, an official in Vancouver’s Public Health Bureau, who has taken notice and been observing William.
As Degair’s observations take the reader deeper into the personal life of William, he becomes convinced he has discovered a new disease – William’s Disease – a mixture of depression, introversion and anti-social behavior. Only happy, healthy and fit people are tolerated in Vancouver, and William no longer fits.
In Simon’s novel the characters are beautifully rendered as happily controlled. As a kind of modern proletariat operating in an age of information they log into their computer no differently than nineteenth century workers punching in at the factory. Control operates both at work and in their private lives. Big money and government lie in bed together, personified in the character of Sydney Rothsteen, Simon’s stand in for greed, and the owner of the biggest social network, Real. For Rothsteen people are products or data. In Simon’s world the disturbing idea is that most people, no matter how educated they are, no longer care at all about who is using their personal data for whatever purpose – whether it’s social networks selling data to advertisers or to spying governments, people have all together lost interest.
Enter Thomas Vickers, a graduate school dropout and recent new employee at Eureka! who begins to clue William in to how the virtual reality William lives in is actually perpetuating the influence and control of people like Rothsteen and the Vancouver Public Health Bureau, and things go pop. Degair interprets William’s desire for escape and new found enlightenment as his disease manifesting itself and must step in. What happens next occurs in Degair’s office at the Public Health Bureau and it determines William’s fate and perhaps the fate of all humankind.