Literary science fiction, such as Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon or David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, is invaluable for bringing moral questions about our technology to the fore.
David Shafer's first book, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, is a book of this type, ostensibly a literary thriller about governmental and corporate surveillance. It attempts to make its readers understand the impact of the shadow of Google and the NSA on our lives -- an admirable subject, and a timely one — but ultimately the book fails to live up to its jacket text.
The depthless gag of the title is the first warning — haven't we all gotten tired of making fun of text abbreviations? The characters are formulaic in the skill-skill-flaw model. The protagonist is Mark (charming, insightful, drunk) who begins the story indebted and enclutched by the technology-intelligence oligarchy known as the Committee. His estranged best friend Leo (dreamy, empathic, delusional) teams up with the targeted aid-worker Leila (smart, capable, cold) to turn Mark against the Committee and take them down from the inside. Their weapon is a computer virus prepared by Leila's sister Roxana (genius, principled, armless).
All three lead characters are essentially pawns of the larger factions. Mark is a bought-and-paid-for motivational speaker meant to be a propagandist for SineCo, the novel's stand-in for Google. Although he carries the dramatic arc of the story, he is generally too deep in the bottle -- whiskey or pill -- to make choices of his own, so he becomes the unsatisfying sort of protagonist to whom things just happen.
Leo and Leila work for Dear Diary, the techno-rebels who save Leila's father from a Committee-organized child-pornography frame-up after she asks too many questions about their activities in Burma. The Committee travels by oil tanker and have a network of ruthless assassins, while Dear Diary operates out of pubs and grows its computers out of pot plants. Distinctions like these make it easier for the casual reader to navigate the moral complexities of the subject matter.
For a literary work, it's much too ham-fisted and incredible. Ultimately it doesn't succeed as a thriller either, with too much attention being given to secondary stories and a poorly paced and badly resolved conclusion.
In addition to its debilitating virus and pot-puters, Dear Diary also has quantum cryptography and a neural imaging computer program that makes its members telepathic. The technology behind these deuses in their machinas is hand-waved away, which is fine for Star Wars, but unacceptable for a book attempting to shine light on how technology affects our lives.
There's a joke about science journalism that you can always discount everything in an article written after the word quantum. It's the same thing here -- Shafer's palpable lack of understanding of his subject matter make this novel feel out of its depth.
Shafer writes well about smoking, Portland and NGOs. His takedowns of the affluent day-care culture and the banality of corporate motivationalism are sharp and funny, and the early chapters have promising passages about the nature of identity in the face of constant connection.
In fact, his prose throughout the book is unpretentious and engaging, except that he writes about technology like it's an ineffable bogeyman, and the effect falls from gripping to paranoid.
Rather than being thrilling, the book becomes juvenile, with its subject matter being taken over-seriously and at the same time badly understood.
Steve Currie is a poet and improv artist. Follow him @SteveCurrieWpg.