Underground is set a few years in the future. After the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, Australia became what you could ultimately call a police state with a view to ‘fighting the war on terror’. In the wake of the nuclear bombing of Canberra, police checks and Muslim ghettoization became standard practice. The central character is Leo, the property developer brother of the Prime Minister, Bernard, who was influential in steering Australia towards a police state. Leo and Bernard are twins and have not seen eye to eye since they were teenagers. In fact, they hate each other. So when Leo gets kidnapped by Muslim extremists during a cyclone, it is no surprise that his brother does not come to his rescue. The kidnap is the beginning of a race that ultimately ends in Leo becoming captive to powerful figures and thus writing his memoirs, which constitutes the book. The memoirs are addressed to his interrogators, written from his prison confinement narrating how he ended up there and what he thinks of the current political situation of Australia.
The beginning of the story was difficult to enjoy mainly because the narrator, Leo, was such an arsehole. I’m not sure if McGahan deliberately created Leo that way, or if he thought he was in fact a cool central character—your ‘typical aussie bloke’ perhaps. More than that, however, the point that McGahan was making—to put it simply and briefly, that a culture of fear (against terrorism and any other fundamentalism) will not work; it will only lead to the destruction of democracy and the triumph of tyranny—was made in such an obvious way I wanted to throw the book at the author’s face. ‘I get it!!!’ I wanted to scream at him, the way he was screaming his message at me through the pages. A little bit more subtlety would have had me on the edge of my seat. To be fair, the last third of the book did have me on the edge of seat, as the chase became very exciting and the conspiracy theories became grander. At a couple of points, however, I did find myself bellowing ‘preposterous!’ in response to some of the more ridiculous conspiracy theories. Like, how could Canberra be a functioning city and no-one know about it??? Where do the people who live there come from? Do they not talk to their family and friends who may not live in Canberra? Seriously, I think McGahan may have too little faith the intelligence of his fellow citizens.