Why wait until 2022 to review a book published in 1994? For the same reasons one might review 1984 this year though it was published in 1949. Because both books are prescient and cautionary tales for our time like Brave New World and Atlas Shrugged. Because thanks to evidence unfolding around us, they speak to us more urgently today than when they were written. And because, thanks to a chance purchase by Mrs. John Arra at a yard sale this year, Koontz’s Dark Rivers of the Heart from 1994 finally got on John Arra’s radar.
In a way, Koontz displays greater foresight even than Orwell and the others. They had the gross tyrannical excesses of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as models. But with scant evidence from earlier technology, Koontz recognized very early on the potential for abuse of the internet. Most of us were still just signing up with CompuServe, Prodigy, or AOL and maybe getting our first flip phone in 1994. It would be nearly a decade before “24” came along and made us aware of geotracking and satellite surveillance and hacking into civilian systems for terroristic purposes — or law enforcement.
And it is in law enforcement that Koontz recognizes the second forming threat which, coupled with technology, is a poison pill for the Constitution: civil asset forfeiture. This is the process by which law enforcement can seize all your stuff without even a warrant, just under the suspicion that you have committed a crime. So, for example, don’t carry around wads of cash. If you get stopped for a headlight out and the cop sees the cash on your floorboard, that’s probable cause. You are automatically presumed to be a drug dealer. The cop will call for backup. They will take all the cash. And they may take your car as well, assuming it's good cop car material.
According to the Institute for Justice, some $68.8 billion has been seized from private citizens in this manner over the past twenty years and used to fund local police departments and God knows what else. It doesn’t take much research to find story after story of citizens who have been rendered penniless and impotent by the tyrannical use of civil asset forfeiture laws. It is bad law, un-American law. And it has corrupted some local police departments as much as federal agencies because of the incentive to seize property and use it for their own purposes in underfunded jurisdictions. Coupled with the overwhelming force of SWAT teams (also newish in 1994 and prominently featured in Koontz’s novel), the private citizen who’s been targeted does not stand a chance.
It doesn’t have to come from a traffic stop. It can come from something in your “cloud” — a sarcastic or poorly conceived social media post, for example, that can be taken as a veiled threat. Or it can even be something you didn’t do at all: you say you have nothing to hide, so why care? Here’s why: An antagonistic hacker can insert damaging evidence in your cloud, then good luck disproving it belongs to you, like all these enemies of the state who somehow end up with child porn on their computers. Or on a smartphone, the 21st-century Ouija board, the portal to every evil in Pandora’s box. This is today’s version of having drugs mysteriously appear in your car when you stupidly consent to allowing a search — because you have “nothing to hide.” It’s best to remember when it comes to search and seizure, even Barney Fife is not your friend. Insist on a warrant before allowing access. Insist on a subpoena before answering questions. If you are even given the option.
It’s not possible without being a spoiler to detail Koontz’s brilliant portrayal of good vs. evil, citizen vs. state, right vs. wrong in this novel. To reveal anything about the plot is to start unraveling the whole ball of yarn. But suffice it to say, as is apparently characteristic of Koontz’s work, that it has action, suspense, romance, intrigue, and in this case, not one but TWO serial killers! Don’t plan for lights out on time at night. You’ll always want to turn to the next chapter to see what happens.
Despite its clumsy title, for the average reader in 1994 Dark Rivers of the Heart was a cutting edge, fascinating read — and it still holds up. We as Americans had no idea how good we had it then, even with Bubba Clinton in office. The Patriot Act was yet to come. Technology had not compromised every private iota of our lives. But today we see the shameless, absurd way that federal law enforcement uses surveillance powers and entrapment and SWAT teams in abuses like the pre-dawn raid on Roger Stone’s house or the more recent example of James O’Keefe. Like the Russian collusion hoax. Like Ashley Babbit’s assassination by federal police with absolutely no after-action justice for her. Like the many defendants still being held without due process from that day.
Of course, the technology in Koontz’s novel like geotracking can be turned on the tyrants as well — Dinesh D’Souza’s new film “2,000 Mules,” which details via geotracking the use of runners to drop fake ballots into drop boxes during the 2020 election, is a perfect example of the blade cutting both ways. But the Biden administration has shown repeatedly it does not care what the law is, nor what court decisions dictate that go against its aims. Even just this year the Justice Department was caught lying about targeting parents protesting overzealous school boards as terrorists.
Today’s reader will more readily recognize that Koontz saw a nascent evil lurking within the American social fabric and metastasizing fast. His novel is full of symbolism of the struggle with amoral forces that the typical American citizen of 1994 barely knew he was stumbling into as he enthused over the internet and everything that came with it.
Perhaps the budding resistance movement Koontz only touches on in the novel is the most tantalizing idea he introduces in the story. How do they organize without being detected in this age of constant surveillance? If you believe that Ashley Babbitt’s murder was the first shot in the new American Civil War, then this novel could be its Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Here at Way Out Charlotte Pike, cell phone signals just barely, and randomly, reach the John Arra resort home. With tyranny’s compulsion for total domination, it’s no wonder there’s a push for rural broadband, about the least needed government program imaginable. Cows don’t need high-speed internet. That’s still a stretch, but if you are living in Gotham, it’s best to get prepared. Start by turning off that tracking and eavesdropping device you’re carrying around in your pocket or purse. At least, try leaving it off more often than on.
The question is, with vaccine passports looming, censorship rising, and blunt force use of enforcement agencies to intimidate political opposition, how many of us in 2022 have yet figured it out? All the more reason to read 1984, and Koontz’s novel from 1994, today.