Geek to the Rescue

Geek to the Rescue

Where code trumps socio-political realities

Book: Zero Day

Author: Mark Russinovich

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books

Price: Rs 499

Pages: 329

Book: Trojan Horse

Author: Mark Russinovich

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Price: Rs 499

Pages: 319

Mark Russinovich is a facto-phile and he is not afraid to show it. In the information age where the geek is the new god and the nerd is on his way to achieving nirvana,computer coder and novelist Russinovich writes science fiction which is as much science as it is fiction. Set in a foreseeable future,building on technologies as we know them to produce scenarios of apocalypse and horror that are plausible,Russinovich mixes fact,fiction,fantasy and code to write two books that can be excused for their heavy-handed Americanisms and national stereotypes,for the extraordinary amount of information that he suffuses his improbable (but not impossible) plots with.

Zero Day is about the possibility of cyber-terrorism,and how such an attack would stall and bring major cities and power centres of the West to a grinding halt. While the overarching plot of cyber-terrorism is not terribly imaginative,the micro stories of disaster wrought by virus-ridden computers,are morbidly thrilling,as you glance at your own digital device wondering if it is plotting against you. It is hard to make a cyber security expert’s life romantic and glamorous,and Russinovich tries hard to do so without making it too implausible. And he almost succeeds when he opens the novel with the dreary life of Jeff Aiken,huddled behind a laptop and marking days in desultory pizza-eating until the world is threatened by a carefully planned series of virus attacks.

In a page-turner that is filled with action,a Boeing airplane stalls in mid-air and drops rapidly into the ocean,a nuclear power plant teeters on the edge of overheating and mayhem,and robots on an assembly line malfunction and attack workers in a factory — all in a good day’s work. And when technology is not turning against us,there are quick realisations that despite the spread of capitalism and the growing power of the dollar,America is not yet the ruler of the world. And while James Bond might have done his bit in cleaning up national enemies,there are still hacker Russians,sophisticated Arab men and dodgy Brazilians in cybercafés to be fought.


However,what saves Zero Day from becoming a mindless but enjoyable genre of apocalyptic fiction that continues to rule the roost,since the world did not end in 2012,is how terribly informative it is. The surfeit of information,almost bordering on delicious tedium,helps reflect on the threat to the security of information that could be personal,medical or financial,and how our faith in digitisation cannot overlook the vulnerabilities it produces to data and life.

Trojan Horse which is set two years after Zero Day,unfortunately,suffers from the bane that plights all sequels. The information-ninja Jeff Aiken is called to save the brave people of the US (again!) and this time it is the big bad Middle East that unleashes an invisible Trojan that alters data and promises a nuclear apocalypse. And the loopholes that could be overlooked in the first book become jarring irritants here. The attempt at infotainment takes away from the plotting. The characters become irritating as they refuse to grow beyond their assigned role of world saviours. Every “war against terror” inspired cliché that Hollywood has grown is thrown into the mix. And what you have at hand is a novel that could have been good,if the author had bothered to learn from successful computer science fiction.

The novels are stoutly described as science fact rather than fiction,and perhaps to some extent they do show us how much ordinary technology is part of everyday life. And yet,when you compare them with the masters of the genre like William Gibson’s Neuromancer you realise that they lack the expansive imagination of science fiction that allows for different horizons with two suns under which we can be confronted with and critique human ingenuity and paradoxes. Zero Day and Trojan Horse never leave a dull corner of the universe,where good and evil fall into a convenient geographical equation of West and East. They end up reinforcing prejudices,stereotypes and plot patterns that leave you despairing that Russinovich did not pay as much attention to socio-political realities as he did to the code and the computing in his novels.

Namita Malhotra is a legal scholar,Alternative Law Forum,Bangalore and Nishant Shah is Director Research,Centre for Internet and Society,Bangalore