Peter Wayner writes: "The novel Paranoia begins with one of the most tantalizing premises I've read in some time. Young Adam Cassidy was just sliding by as a junior product line manager in the router division of Wyatt Telecom, when he discovered that the company wasn't doing much for the retirement of his pal down on the loading dock. So he impersonated the VP of corporate events, faked a few invoices, and booked the same caterer who brought in the steaks and lobster for the executive suite. Alas, Nicholas Wyatt, the CEO, wasn't happy with the steep bill and gave Cassidy a choice of 20 years in prison or life as a corporate spy. In no time, Cassidy decides he's quite willing to go undercover and find out just what the heck is going on the skunk works over at their competitor, Trion." Read on for the rest of Wayner's review.
It may be hard for anyone who's endured the economic downturn in the computer industry and the ascendance of the DRM lawyers to see the romance of tech, but the computer business continues to be one of the most exciting and explosive corners of the zeitgeist. Fortunes are made and lost in days; products depend upon the synergy of the hackers and the marketeers; and everything turns on the information passed along in IMs, emails and whispers. This world is a rich backdrop for the new thriller by Joe Finder, the spy novelist who set his previous books in the world of the three-letter agencies and the military justice system. This time he's plumbing the depths of corporate politics and industrial espionage with his story of a company racing to deliver the next big Palm Pilot replacement.
The thriller is a reminder that electronic gizmos continue to be a tumultuous and exciting domain where creative people with whip-smart
minds can change the company's destiny. I suppose it would be possible to set a similar novel in, say, the auto industry, but it just wouldn't
have the same resonance. No engineer, designer, or bright employee is going to make much of a difference at Ford or General Motors. Much of
their future is dictated by the cost
for the retired workers and the problems are not about cars qua cars. Producing great cars would be nice, but it's not the main challenge for
the companies. At least in Silicon Valley, there can be some direct link between action and reaction. Newton's law still holds.
The beginning of the book is an irresistable hook. Who wouldn't want to throw a party on the corporation's dime?
Many of the elements of Silicon Valley's mythology appear here. There's a boss who keeps stable of young, blonde administrative assistants around. There's another boss who works out of the same size cubicle as everyone else. Secret research labs to develop the next generation of gadgets are locked away in a perimeter guarded by other gadgets that scan eyeballs or examine fingerprints. All of the characters drive slick cars and worry about the quality of their real estate.
As the novel unfolds, Cassidy's allegiance and soul is pulled in a tug-of-war. Who deserves the information he's gathering? Is there right and wrong in corporate espionage? Which company deserves to win?
The novel is similar in tone and structure to John Grisham's The Firm or Michael Crichton's Disclosure, two other novels that mused about the nature of the modern workplace. Finder's characters are
richer and better drawn, at least than Grisham's earlier works. The search for the next gadget isn't really the point of Cassidy journey in
the labyrinth, it's just an excuse to work through the modern world of corporations and the way they organize people and their creations. The
book is not filled with the neo-Marxist questioning of the capitalist
system that comes from places like the Baffler , but there are
similar themes that echo in the cubicle bins.
This is, of course, because it's a thriller, not some postmodern master's degree thesis. The twists are well-handled, the pacing is good, and the ending may open the doors to debates. I spent some time wondering whether it was the best ending on many different levels. That kind of resolution is something that doesn't come from standard thrillers by people like Tom Clancy or James Paterson. In those books, the author's point of view is as solid and fixed as, say, those opinion shows on Fox TV. Someone's always dying or trying to destroy America in those books and stopping the murder or saving the country is the only possible resolution.
Finder's earlier books delved into the mirror world of espionage and the realm of three-letter agencies. Moscow Club focused on a coup and an assassination in Soviet Russia. Extraordinary Powers explored the possibility that various spy agencies could tap clairvoyance and other extra-sensory powers-- a premise that David Moorhouse later confirmed was very real in his book, Psychic Warrior . The world of covert assassination in Latin America took center stage in High Crimes.
The tone is also much lighter than Finder's early books, with their heavy body count. After watching the movie version of High Crimes, I kept wishing someone would write a nice comedy for Ashley Judd. She deserved it, after the blood and betrayal. This time, death isn't part
of the stakes, and this leaves Finder a bit more room to maneuver and
play people and allegiances off each other. Cutting down on the raw
danger gives him the freedom to build suspense with action and
character. The book is really a light-hearted romp through a
semi-mythical world where fortunes are huge, dreams are made real
through engineering, and everyone drives a slick car. I say "semi-mythical," because despite the downturn, there's still plenty of
money in some corners of technology. Will it always be there? Well,
that's not the point of this book.
It's worth commending Finder for his insight into the technology world. His background is more in Russian literature and spy things, not in programming. Yet, the tech world he creates is as true to life in Silicon Valley as books like Po Bronson's The First 10 Million is the Hardest and Douglas Coupland's Microserfs. Technology is a wonderful domain for a novelist to work within, and we should be glad he came in from the cold to check it out.
Peter Wayner is the author of 13 thrilling technical books on topics like building secure databases ( Translucent Databases ), steganography ( Disappearing Cryptography ), and stopping cheating ( Policing Online Games ). You can purchase Paranoia from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.