Friday, December 19, 2014

Sam Spade Stalks the Massive Data Sprawl

Reece Hirsch, Intrusion

You ever have that experience where you dive into a book, love its ideas, commit yourself to reading… then find the book leaves you really, really tired? This book is like that. Reece Hirsch, a career digital privacy attorney, writes a novel about a digital security attorney taking on Earth’s best international online saboteurs. It melds classic science fiction imagery with gritty noir. It addresses today’s top international security concerns. What could go wrong?


Attorney Chris Bruen knows something’s up when Zapper, America’s biggest search engine, phones after midnight. Seems hackers have stolen Zapper’s nigh-priceless proprietary algorithms. Hackers employed by China’s People’s Liberation Army. Zapper has assembled dozens of Earth’s top security specialists to plug the leak, but they need their lawyer to squelch possible market-destroying damage. Bruen boldly proposes personally visiting Shanghai.

Reviewers can’t make this shit up. A Silicon Valley attorney proposes personally infiltrating the PLA and bringing stolen data home, like Jack Damn Ryan or something. He admits having no plan, only outdated Chinese connections, and sketchy Mandarin. Yet, the next morning, Bruen arrives in Shanghai, tracking the PLA’s most secure cell, while outrunning Chinese counterintelligence. Either he’s a superhero, or he’ll die doing 25-to-life in Qincheng Prison.

Early on, I had a flash. Hirsch describes an assassin tracking a corporate executive through Tokyo’s neon-lit Shinjuku district, and I realized: this is just like William Gibson’s multiple award-winning novel Neuromancer (best opening line ever!). Hirsch’s present-day setting purges sci-fi trappings like “sprawl cowboys” and “wetware,” but advancing technology means that, exactly thirty years on, what Gibson originally postulated as science fiction, has become disturbingly real.

Reece Hirsch
Twenty pages later, looking down a rain-slicked Shanghai streetscape, Chris Bruen has a flash: this looks just like a William Gibson novel! Though he’s right, I jumped, thinking: “WTF? Did Hirsch just intrude and tell me how to perceive his narration?” Yes, son. Yes he did. I forgave this hiccup, figuring anybody can make mistakes once. Sure, writing coaches encourage Padawans to avoid getting between audiences and their narration. But surely everyone’s occasionally gaffed that way.

With Hirsch, though, it isn’t occasional. He lards his prose with long, discursive soliloquies about, say, China’s mix of authoritative government and semi-free-market capitalism, or how China erects cities cheaply and hastily, backfilling with high-tech architecture once jobs arrive. This doesn’t surprise me; I’ve read Xuefei Ren. Chinese inequality particularly bothers Bruen, Hirsch’s viewpoint character. (Hirsch says Bruen lives in San Francisco, Americas second most unequal city, after NYC.)

Seriously, this continues for pages upon pages upon pages. Also, secondary characters discourse lengthily upon IRC protocols, Chinese prisons, and computer security techniques. Popular thriller writers like Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell use technical descriptions to advance stories while convincing readers they’re learning something. But Hirsch doesn’t explain, he lectures, often in explicitly moralistic terms. He doesn’t want to guide audiences, he wants to dictate their responses.

But any response requires audiences accepting extreme unlikelihoods. Once, captured by a PLA cell, Bruen (again, a Frisco attorney) kills two hackers and their PLA handler, despite having a broken arm and possible concussion. Yeah, right. He then steals the hackers’ laptop and, on the return train to Shanghai, commences unlocking the hackers’ lengthy data trail. With a broken arm. Still. Anyone who’s ever broken a limb knows you can’t just power through, not without a splint and fistfuls of Tylenol.

Hirsch simultaneously intensively researches China’s situation, and demands readers accept staggering Hail Marys. In a nation of staggering urban poverty, Bruen never meets anybody who doesn’t speak either English or Mandarin, even in Cantonese-speaking regions. Though China notoriously surveils nearly all visiting foreign nationals, Bruen stakes out a PLA division HQ for two days, then follows key employees home, without attracting visible attention.

What does the bull say?

This story arguably deserves told. Chinese data piracy increasingly overshadows nuclear proliferation or religious extremism as America’s biggest national security threat. In an epigraph, Hirsch quotes two federal data security specialists saying: any corporation which hasn’t seen data piracy isn’t looking hard enough. If it isn’t already, data security will soon become modern life’s biggest, most persistent force of international instability.

One wonders whether Hirsch might prefer writing New Yorker articles over novels. He’s flush with facts and carefully differentiated information, but his story feels anemic. He lectures us eagerly, while Xerox characters describe various jigsaw puzzle pieces which events gradually assemble. Hirsch proves himself a masterful researcher with wonderfully panoptic view; sadly, he proves himself a really lackluster storyteller.

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