Wednesday, June 17, 2015

James Bond Vs. Artificial Armageddon

Thomas Waite, Trident Code

When a well-connected Russian hacker seizes remote control of an American nuclear submarine, world powers wonder which city he’ll target. But his ambitions rank much higher than one target: he plans to redraw world maps in one brutal firestorm. Digital security expert Lana Elkins has mere hours to prevent violence literally unprecedented in world history. But when the hacker discovers Lana’s one weakness, a global terror moment turns personal.

Digital entrepreneur Thomas Waite’s third novel combines two real-world security scares in one gripping thriller. Though several authors have recently attempted to spotlight 21st-Century cyberterror threats, none I’ve read before Waite has created a story interesting enough to justify the premise. And Waite pairs cyberwarfare with what the Pentagon has called America’s fastest growing national security threat: the unforeseeable consequences of global warming.

Lana Elkins has saved America from cyberterror before. Her security contracting firm has government contracts, NSA clearance, and international reach. But guardians must anticipate every possible breach in advance to protect their charges; enemies need discover only one weakness to spread unparalleled destruction. Elkins has discovered that enemy, a suave barbarian wealthy, smart, and well-connected enough to be her true opposite number.

Born rich in post-Soviet Russia, Oleg Dernov believes himself unfettered by ordinary morals. Sex, money, and global terror all serve his ultimate goal, power. Now he has Earth’s first privately controlled nuclear arsenal, and permission to fire. But like all self-proclaimed übermenschen, he overlooks the human details. Can he maintain his empire long enough to blackmail America into compliance? Probably not—but he can inflict unprecedented damage first.

Thomas Waite
Waite engineers a peculiar balance between uniquely modern security fears, and well-trodden thriller boilerplates. This can create jarring disjunctions. I won’t reveal Dernov’s intended target. It’s so unexpected, yet so thoroughly perfect, that you deserve to discover it by reading. Suffice to say, Dernov has discovered a sure-fire manner to threaten billions of lives, destroy economic superpowers, and wipe entire nations away, without firing on one human target.

This economical storytelling panache thus increases my frustration when Dernov struts and swaggers like an early Bond villain. He manipulates others, boasts openly, and wallows in past sadism like you’d recall good sex. Waite creates a groundbreaking, and chillingly plausible, act of villainy, and hands its execution to a cheesy, predictable villain. Dernov practically signposts, from his first appearance, the weakness Elkins will ultimately exploit to dismantle his operation.

What, you thought, through some outside chance, Dernov might win? Please. In series thrillers, the only question is how our heroine will emerge victorious, not whether. Though I must grant Waite one significant accomplishment: he resists the temptation to reduce the villain’s efforts to Pink Panther-like clownish bluster in the denouement. Elkins emerges victorious, eventually, but returns to a world permanently transformed by Dernov’s actions. That’s actually pretty courageous.

Waite also demonstrates distinctly black-and-white morality. Elkins good; Dernov bad. Military good; hackers bad. Women, in Waite’s cosmology, are invariably good, and single motherhood is an especial emblem (eventually) of incorruptible morality. Men, however, are consistently either villainous or neutral, with one fleeting exception late in the book, unless they have official state titles like Director or Lieutenant. One flagrant jerk turns suddenly heroic when we discover his official standing.

This strange duality reaches its apex with someone addressed only as the Russian President. Waite presents this offstage character as ruthlessly amoral, a practitioner of merciless realpolitik, but a master schemer whose ability to organize off-the-books conspiracies makes Caesar’s assassins look small-minded. This strange grudging admiration reflects common right-wing evaluations of Vladimir Putin a year ago, before declining global petroleum demand and a tumbling ruble kicked Russia’s ass.

Keeping timely in our rapidly changing era ain’t easy.

So basically, Waite couches a daring, up-to-the-minute premise in a resurrected Cold War thriller. Some readers will appreciate Waite’s innovative application of today’s changing security threats to a well-worn genre that often resists originality. Others will notice an ethos essentially an entire generation outdated and balk. Me, I found myself rubbing my temples in frustration frequently. What you get from reading depends on what you bring in with you.

I read and enjoyed this entire book. But frequently, I found myself pausing over particular chapters, mostly those highlighting Dernov, thinking: “Oh, Thomas. You really grabbed the easy choice there, didn’t you?” Idealists may struggle through Waite’s more derivative passages. Even the Bond movies have reconfigured their long-successful story formula recently. Approach this book with caution: there’s plenty to like, when you push through the dross.

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