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This Eden by Ed O’Loughlin: Gripping narrative and big ideas

Book review: Declan Burke on a glorious blend of spy novel and speculative fiction

This Eden
This Eden
Author: Ed O’Loughlin
ISBN-13: 978-1529412857
Publisher: riverrun
Guideline Price: £16.99

Expect, if possible, the unexpected. Ed O’Loughlin’s debut novel, Not Untrue & Not Unkind (2009), was a sobering exploration of genocide in Africa. Toploader (2011) was a darkly comic novel set in a surreal war zone. Minds of Winter (2016) was a time-bending epic of Arctic exploration.

Naturally, O’Loughlin’s latest, This Eden, has little in common with its predecessors. Narrated by an omniscient “we” – who seem to have access to every digital fingerprint ever recorded – the story opens in Vancouver, where a romance between Michael and Alice is turning sour. A student struggling to cope with the demands of his engineering course, Michael has little interest in Alice’s interlinked passions for climate change, social justice and encryption (“She would spend her life hunting down rabbit holes”).

When Alice disappears, having presumably taken her own life, the distraught Michael finds himself sucked into a vast conspiracy that appears to be orchestrated by the amiable billionaire Campbell Fess of Inscape Technologies, a Silicon Valley titan with the kind of ambition that leaves Auric Goldfinger, say, in the ha’penny place.

O’Loughlin opens This Eden with Ian Fleming’s celebrated once-is-coincidence line from Goldfinger, but the novel, while employing some of the tropes of the classic spy thriller, has far more in common with some of the novels Michael picks up on his globe-trotting adventures, which include offerings from William Gibson, Philip K Dick, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Pynchon and Flann O’Brien.

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As he tries to make sense of the surreal, futuristic version of the modern world in which he finds himself, the bewildered Michael trots along behind the shadowy intelligence operatives Towse and Aoife as they flit from California to Uganda, Paris and Dublin, gradually peeling back layers of reality until they hit paydirt with the “God Algorithm, a technology that will allow those who control the new artificial intelligence . . . to reverse-engineer a consciousness from the data it produces”.

O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter was one of the most inventive, challenging and entertaining novels of recent times, and This Eden is similarly a blend of gripping narrative and big ideas. Delivered in the laconic tone of a disembodied, almost disinterested, omniscient narrator, the novel is a darkly humorous mix of cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned greed, in which “the weaponising of quantum computing” threatens to establish a single financial entity (OmniCent) as a Big Brother for the 21st century.

Michael, Aoife and Towse represent the spear-tip of the “resistance”: by going off-grid, using only cash and analogue peer-to-peer connections (ie, human interactions), the plucky trio slip through the cracks in the Brave New World of wall-to-wall, 24/7 digital surveillance. Still, even as they dodge from one country to another by employing yet another devilishly clever wheeze, the reader can’t help but wonder what it might mean for the success of their mission that the all-seeing narrators are with them every step of the way as they mine the world’s digital database with apparent impunity.

Running through it all is a seam of hardboiled cynicism that Fleming’s James Bond – a state-sponsored assassin, after all, rather than a spy – might have been proud of. The wars of the future, Towse tells Michael, are being waged right now: “Viruses and cyberattacks and hacking and all the rest of it – psy-ops, election theft, fake news, mass surveillance, truth suppression, asymmetric conflict, gas-lighting. Nowadays, bullets and bombs are only an afterthought.”

The result is a glorious blend of spy novel and speculative fiction, the kind of book that sends the reader tumbling down rabbit holes to explore surreal scenarios that are chillingly plausible, all the while defiantly refusing to accept “the biggest lie of all, which is that nothing is real or true, so nothing really matters, that things have to be this way, and there’s nothing we can do”.

Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His latest novel is The Lammisters (No Alibis Press)

Declan Burke

Declan Burke

Declan Burke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic