Book Review Richard Clarke, the world's most famous security expert, has a new book entitled Breakpoint. A techno-thriller, it takes its place among its equivalents, romance fictions for American men, a genre for combining combat action porn with loving trademarked descriptions of weapons. The men in this story get hard over firearms, scotch and a chardonnay named Kistler.
However, it's as silly to condemn the genre as it is to disrespect hotdogs as not proper food. Techno-thrillers have made up a necessary part of the book rack in supermarkets for the last few decades and many Americans probably wouldn't buy anything with print in it if they didn't see it near the checkout stand.
Secondarily, they make ample computer game fodder. Looking through a collection over the past decade and a half, one spies Tom Clancy's EGA and VGA blockbusters, Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising. This was long before the dean of techno-thriller college was afforded the deluxe treatment in commando actioners lacking even books to hang them from.
And who can forget the 360 Pacific hit from 1991, Megafortress? Inspired by Clancy-rival Dale Brown's novels, it let you bomb all the Iranian cities the USAF has on its targeting list now, only with a super B-52. (It was called Operation Sledgehammer and if you have a copy, look up its flightplans to see where we could be going.)
Clarke, in any case, was the last cyberczar among cyberczars, the only TV-genic one, ever. More incredibly, of all the Clinton administration's security men, Clarke was the one given the best treatment in ABC's The Path to 9/11, the right's drive-by treatment of the beginning of the war on terror. It was quite a turnaround from a couple years ago when Republican hatchetmen wanted to hang him for going on 60 Minutes to tell viewers George W. Bush just wouldn't listen to reason.
So in terms of geopolitical celebrity, Clarke's done everything. A piece of Clarke terror porn was published by the snobby Altantic magazine and was a perfect demo for a series of techno-thrillers. And so he has commenced to furnish them, first with The Scorpion's Gate, and now with Breakpoint. Both could be optioned for movies and/or console gaming.
For Breakpoint, Clarke returns to his cyberczar roots. But in this story, someone gets to do something about the digital mayhem, not just scream "electronic Pearl Harbor," make policy recommendations no one listens to and be keynote speaker at security conventions.
Clarke supplies a team of outside-the-bureaucracy do-gooders: a dauntless central heroine, one NYPD cop for muscle and one hacker, a nebbish named Soxster. Soxter's purpose is to be the magic wand, no more and no less. Whenever there are villains to be traced, or information needed when the group
is against the wall in the race against the terror clock, Soxter furnishes both so the story may proceed.
Naturally, the US government is delinquent and ineffective. Clarke refers to the FBI as either feebs or fibbies. And he employs no Jack Bauers or lawyers to bend the Constitution. Torture and beatings for dramatic effect by good guys are excluded.
Clarke also knows the current top rank of terrorists don't cut it in fiction. Real life dingbats thinking they can make bombs from flour and hair bleach cooked on a stove, the flunkouts of community college gut courses and hoarders of electronic scribbles from the Internet, aren't compelling. Even jihadist suicide bombers are simple pawns, just for the purpose of blowing stuff up, in this book's case, scientists from MIT and DARPA.
In Breakpoint there's a Fu Manchu-like plan afoot, one to separate the US from the future by bombing Internet switches and routers while assassinating leading boffins. Misleading enemies are offered from the laundry list of American bete noires: the Chinese and the Russian mafia, among others.
It's some Michael Crichton sans ranting that global warming is a hoax, a look at the future through a subscription to Wired magazine and a bad grasp of the disciplines of molecular genetics and medicine.
[Spoiler alert: Stop reading now if you don't want to know the climax.]
Then Clarke flashes a droll inside sense of humor. The bad guys are one famous American computing guru and an evangelical general from the extreme right. One is rather unflatteringly modeled on Bill Joy (the character's name is William "Gaudium" - get it?), the other one Jerry Boykin, a top special forces commandant, America's Otto Skorzeny, who ran into trouble a few years ago for proclaiming a little too loudly that his god, Jesus, was better than their god, Allah.
As one of the puppet masters, Joy, rather "Gaudium," thinks America is progressing too fast. The future doesn't need us, he thinks. Nano-ooze, DNA meddling, robots, quantum computing and "living software" will destroy what we hold dear. The Boykin figure is the Joy character's ally because the future's so bright, one's gotta wear shades and never trust the Internet. Gaudium/Joy gets nervous as the terror campaign accelerates. He wants out when people start to die and the power is cut off to half the nation. Boykin kills him with a karate chop to the noggin for being a sissy, ending the latter's angst over the coming of the computing Singularity, a supercritical accelerating mass of techno-gobble.
This reviewer laughed out loud when reading it, a result Clarke may have intended. ®
George Smith is a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighborhood hardware stores.