The works of novelist Peter Carey have long traveled to unexpected places. Australian by birth, Carey won two Booker Prizes for depicting the strange, lawless past of his home country in Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang. In his other books, he has skittered through history and across the English-speaking world, from Victorian London to 1970s New York to the early America visited by Alexis de Tocqueville. In his new novel, Amnesia, Carey lands in Australia once again, but the history is more recent: it tells the story of a reporter assigned to write about a brilliant, anonymous cyberterrorist.
Felix Moore, the novel’s protagonist, begins the tale in a state of financial ruin. That’s partly what compels him to accept a commission from a politically engaged and wealthy friend to write a sympathetic biography of a computer hacker who managed to open prison doors in Australia and America remotely. This mysterious figure is known as the Angel, and Felix’s story is meant to turn public opinion in the hacker’s favor and prevent her extradition to the U.S., where she would face the death penalty.
The Angel isn’t just any hacker but one Gabrielle Baillieux, the daughter of Felix’s onetime love from the radical movement, making the assignment more attractive and more complicated. That link reminds us that Carey, who wrote an entire novel riffing on Great Expectations, is unafraid of indulging the Dickensian pleasure of coincidence. And that his hacker is a woman reverses the notion, ingrained by films, TV and Silicon Valley, that coding is the domain of men. We read of Gaby’s experiences, dictated onto audiotapes, as Felix attempts to understand them.
Amnesia pits one generation’s anti-Establishment thought against a later generation’s anti-Establishment action. Felix’s journalism career has revolved around long-held suspicions that the CIA helped engineer the constitutional crisis that resulted in the dismissal of Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. A conspiracy theorist at heart, he writes to impose order on that obscure event. Gaby, on the other hand, exists outside the law and perhaps outside history. It’s unclear just what her goals are; she recalls hacking into NASA’s servers and then finding herself with nothing to say. While Gaby’s personal history makes her a rich character, her politics remains opaque: Does anything motivate this hacker, aside from nihilism?
Amnesia’s power stems from Felix’s confusion. His framework for understanding civil disobedience falls short when it comes to Gaby, and he certainly can’t understand her work. The cyberrealm is unknowable: a state without rules, a man-made God. What we’ve forgotten isn’t just the ambiguous history of Australian-U.S. relations that Felix fixates on; it’s also the degree to which our lives have become defined by infinite hackable processes. They can be sent into chaos without our ever comprehending them.
Oscar and Lucinda, Carey’s most famous novel, depicts early Australia as defined by Britain, at once standing in the mother country’s shadow and asserting itself against it. In Amnesia, all the world has become Australia, colonized by a dominant but barely reachable state–the web–whose power structure is utterly clouded. Ask Felix, who has spent his life trying to solve a mystery that’s grown less and less relevant in an age when surveillance is blandly accepted: it was easier when there were names and entities upon whom one could hang a good conspiracy.
This appears in the February 23, 2015 issue of TIME.