The Future Is Scary and Islamophobic: Fearful Master by Arthur Lawrence

25610938

If things keep going as they are, I fear that the author of this week’s book, Fearful Master, is right in predicting a world where simply being Muslim is grounds to imprison you and strip you of your American citizenship.

There is much to fear in Arthur Lawrence’s fictional world: a hyped-up Homeland Security called SECOR; a Canadian government that is just a bit too deferential to American interests; the US military basically invading any Muslim country on the smallest pretext; increased surveillance powers and a loss of freedom and privacy that is just a bit too close to reality to be comfortable.

The novel focuses on Jason Currie, a Lebanese-Canadian working as an analyst and linguist at CSIS. On assignment in Los Angeles, he is sent to Mexico to make contact with an ex-lover, Miriam, who lives with a wanted American dissident, Brendan Manwaring. Stuck between his loyalty to CSIS, the looming threat of torture from SECOR to discover what he knows about Miriam and the dissident, and his desire to save the girl he loves, he needs to navigate the choppy waters of international espionage, American internal security and external affairs policies and his own personal feelings.

If this sounds complicated, it’s because it kind of is. Unfortunately, despite an interesting premise and some enlightening and topical analyses of the current state of affairs in North America, the novel fails to deliver deep characters, moving writing and a tight plot, which should be the first thing a spy thriller delivers.

Characters, first. Although I was curious to follow Jason’s story, I never really cared for him. Even through harrowing torture scenes, I failed to ultimately connect with him and his fate. As for Hawk, Miriam, Manwaring and Werner, they were so little defined that I sometimes had trouble keeping up with who was who–except for their genders and names. Towards the end, Hawk and Werner are much better defined, but I was left with a sour taste in my mouth concerning Miriam, the only important female character in the novel, and supposedly a willful activist who ends up doing pretty much nothing but waiting to be saved by Jason.

The failures of characterization are not helped by the middling nature of the writing. It’s not terrible, but it’s not excellent either. It’s just rather on the nose all the time, with uninspired descriptions and not much style. If several torture scenes of the main character fail to move you, there’s some work to be done on the emotional side of the writing. That’s what the novel lacks the most: a way to rouse emotions from the reader. At least, it didn’t arouse much in me.

There are also several plot issues that I feel should have been addressed. There’s a trip to Sudan that serves as an exposition device, but not much more; several trips to Mexico that could easily have been compressed to one or two; and weird questions about how he was allowed to go there in the first place. I just couldn’t understand the motivations of most of the characters, which left me wondering, ultimately, why any of them did what they did. Even the final revelations left me with a “what the hell?” feeling, which is not good when you’re writing a thriller.

In the end, the book feels like a vehicle for an argument, which is never really a good idea if you’re trying to write good fiction. Despite this, there are some good exchanges in the book that highlight today’s problem with increasingly islamophobic policies:

“Explain to him that we come from the United States,” Hawk says. “There are many Sudanese there, most of whom are good citizens. But there are also a few young men who are doing great harm to their fellow Sudanese by plotting attacks on our people. We would like him to help us identify them so that all other Sudanese Americans will be secure. No harm will come to these men.”

“That sounds a little thick to me,” Jason says.

“Just tell him!” Werner says before Hawk can comment. Hawk glares at Werner.

Al Ansari hears Jason out with the raised eyebrows of a skeptic. “Do the Americans tell you Canadians such tales?” Jason breaks into a chuckle.

“Never mind the witticisms,” Hawk says, cutting Werner short. Cooperative or not?”

“Are you prepared to help us?” Jason asks. “It would certainly improve your situation with the Americans.”

“By help you mean betray young men who are dedicated to their community?”

“It sounds as if he’s asking you the questions,” Hawk says. Tell him his religion is being dishonored by these extremists. They teach hatred of Christians.”

“The general suggests Islamists are teaching young Muslims in America that Christians are the enemies of Islam. It’s causing problems in his country.”

“Ah! I sympathize with the general. Radical Christians are teaching their young men that Muslims are the enemies of Christianity, and that is causing problems in my country.”

That is as clear a point as you can make about the inherent inequality in the current state of international affairs. How can they not see us as enemies if we keep attacking them in the name of Western democracy, i.e. Christians? Are we just going to call a new Crusade? Of course, everyone who’s even mildly sane knows that blaming all Muslims for the current wars is just as crazy as blaming all Christians for the current attack on women’s rights.

Despite the interesting political arguments and how the novel caught my interest from a thematic point of view, it doesn’t really work as a compelling story. This is the author’s first book, so I do want to give him the benefit of the doubt and of experience for any future volumes. If you’re interested in seeing what a slightly more radical, islamophobic and war-mongering world would look like, it’s a good couple of hours to spend. But if what you ultimately want is a compelling, tightly written thriller with interesting characters and inspired writing, you should give this one a pass.

This review first appeared on The Cryptosphere. I received the book for free from Promontory Press, a Vancouver Island publisher.

When Google Met Wikileaks: A New Philosophy For Our Times

When Google Met WikiLeaks via @Anon3agl3 on Twitter
When Google Met WikiLeaks via @Anon3agl3 on Twitter

In the time of the Greeks, philosophy was developed through conversation. Socrates went around Athens talking with people and making them think about their life, their values and their actions.

The art of philosophy by dialogue has not been lost in the past millennia, but it hasn’t been used much lately. When’s the last time you read a philosophy in dialogue form?

Well, actually, I did just recently: When Google Met Wikileaks. At its heart, it’s a conversation between Julian Assange and top Google executives around a house in rural England. The Google people met Assange under the pretext of writing a book–but it gives Assange a chance to explain why he does what he does.

In short, Assange started Wikileaks to promote justice. I paraphrase: transparency promotes just acts, whereas secrecy promotes and supports unjust acts. If he can help the world do fewer unjust acts and more just acts, he will have served his purpose.

The book begins with a short introduction by Assange about the context of the conversation, the volume being used as a pretext to meet him, his previous encounters with Google, and other important information to understand the conversation. It’s all pretty easy to follow, and probably already stuff you know if you’ve been following this blog and/or Wikileaks and cyber-privacy issues for the last few years.

The conversation is broken up in smaller, thematic chapters to help break it down in sections. I really appreciated this touch; it helps keep every bit of conversation in perspective. Even though the talk sometimes gets technical, it never gets so much so that you can’t follow; in any case, the Google people are more interested in Assange’s motivation than his technical abilities.

Towards the end of the book, one of the Google executives asks Assange the most important question: “How do you know you’ve won?” Assange’s answer is, I think, the best explanation of the struggle of every pro-transparency activist, and probably every activist ever.

It’s not possible to win this kind of thing. This is a continuous striving that people have been doing for a long time. Of course, there are many individual battles that we win, but it is the nature of human beings that they lie and cheat and deceive. Organized groups of people who do not lie and cheat and deceive find each other and get together. Because they have that temperament, they are more efficient, because they are not lying and cheating and deceiving each other. That is a very old struggle between opportunists and collaborators. I don’t see that going away. I think we can make some significant advances and perhaps it is the making of these advances and being involved in that struggle that is good for people. The process is part of the end game. It’s not just to get somewhere in the end; rather, this process of people feeling that it is worthwhile to be involved in that sort of struggle, is in fact worthwhile for people.

So, dear Kittens (as raincoaster would say), it is worthwhile to be involved in the struggle against lying and cheating and deceiving. Just being involved will do good, whether or not you win every battle.

This book deserves a special place on every hacktivist’s bookshelf. It’s not obvious from its title, and Assange himself wouldn’t call it that, but in it I read the core of a philosophy of justice in the digital age based on collaboration, trust and transparency.

I urge you to read this, and read it as more than a conversation. Read it as the candid expression of a way of life that benefits everyone, of a struggle that seeks to restore justice to the world by shedding light on the darkest parts of human greed and evil.

I don’t know much about Assange as a human being. He’s probably not perfect–nobody is. But his motivations, as I read them in the book, are in the best interest of humanity.

And for that, we must admire him.

This review first appeared on The Cryptosphere.

Beware The Invisible Acrobat Midgets: Chameleo Is Weird, In A Good Way

23365123

Sometimes my work as a book reviewer has me read things I wouldn’t necessarily pick out from a bookstore shelf. Take Chameleo: A Strange But True Story of Invisible Spies, Heroin Addiction, And Homeland Security for example. The title is curious, but it seems rather outlandish.

Okay, I lied. I would totally pick this out from a bookstore shelf BECAUSE it is so outlandish.

And outlandish, funny and curious you get with this book.

The basic story is this: a college English teacher gets a call from a heroin-addicted friend, Dion, who complains of weird things happening to him after being arrested: men in suits following him around everywhere in town, weird noises keeping him up at night, even the impression of small invisible midgets entering his bedroom while he sleeps.

The book is about Dion’s mission to escape this mental torture and to prove that he has been a victim of illegal (and rather strange) harassment from the government.

Even though I had categorized this as a non-fiction book in my Goodreads, I changed my mind later and put in on a fiction shelf. Why? The main reason is that Guffey decided to begin the book with quotes from The Body Snatchers and Frankenstein. The Frankenstein quote in particular is interesting: “The story is too connected to be mistaken for a dream, and I have no motive for falsehood.” Given how unreliable Victor Frankenstein is as a narrator, I smile at the irony of putting this as an opening quote for a book that sells itself as non-fiction.

In any case, the book itself wavers between funny, weird and annoying. Funny: the relationship between Guffey and Dion gives rise to some hilarious quips and observations about life in post Patriot Act America.

At one point, annoyed by the pair of spies surveilling him from a parking lot near his apartment, Dion does what I think is the best scene of the book:

As his two shadows continued to spy on him, Dion nonchalantly went about his business. He started making spaghetti, but as the constant sight of these two jarheads began to grate on him more and more he started adding special ingredients to the mix: shredded cheese, Worcestershire sauce, rice, flour, mustard, ketchup, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, peanut butter, Tang, Jell-O mix, sugar, honey, multicolored sprinkles, and stale almonds. He stirred it all up until it was a nice, thick, noxious goo, then ran outside, tossed the entire concoction over the fence, and hit at least one of the agents dead on. Both of them screamed and went running off towards the nearby Vons parking lot.

If that’s not an effective way to get rid of spies, I don’t know what is!

The book deals with strangeness in many ways: hallucinations, mostly visual but also sometimes auditory, and a glimpse of the life of someone who is (or feels that he is) under constant, oppressive surveillance. Sometimes I couldn’t help but frown at some of the outlandish claims and events reported in the book: weird science-fiction paintings replacing Dion’s view from his bedroom window, and other strange happenings. It made me constantly question Dion’s sanity (which I guess is the point) and reflect on the reality of someone who could really be under such psychological torture. Wouldn’t you go crazy too?

And then there are the annoying bits, like entire transcripts of phone conversations between Dion and Guffey. I really think that they could have been summarized, with only the important quotes used. I began by trying to read them through, but after 10 pages I just kind of skipped ahead. It was a bad stylistic choice, I feel, and slowed down the progress of the story considerably, and for no apparent story-driven reason. There was just nothing in these conversations that justified the entire transcript being used.

That being said, the book as a whole gave me a few good laughs and left with a strange sense of the power of our governments. It’s a good way to spend your time if you’re interested in the issue of over-use of military surveillance on civilians. You’ll laugh a bit, you might find it strange, but you’ll also close the book with a strange, “I’m kind of happy this is over but I’m glad I read it” smile on your face.

If it’s so easy to imagine deploying dozens of people and spending thousands of dollars surveilling a single drug addict and small-time drug dealer, what are they capable of doing on the scale of a nation?

This review first appeared on The Cryptosphere.

A Compelling Adventure: Robert Young Pelton’s Raven

Raven by Robert Young Pelton
Raven by Robert Young Pelton

Raven, the first novel by international correspondent and travel/war/human catastrophe author Robert Young Pelton, is available exclusively from the author’s site as a downloadable ebook.

Not knowing Robert Young Pelton as an author, I had no specific expectations around his novel, Raven. The title and the cover suggest that this is about the Pacific Northwest–British Columbia in particular.

Check.

But otherwise, I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I started reading this book.

Raven is about 13-year-old Alex Wilden, who is going on a rather badly conceived canoe trip down the Stikine river with his school. The principal of the school, Smith, is a sadistic megalomaniac who is willing to risk his students’ life for a publicity coup. Alex, a reserved Californian dealing with abandonment issues, goes on the trip without enthusiasm or interest–only to become the only boy on the trip to really learn from the natural environment and really understand its power and meaning.

After a disaster in the Grand Canyon of the Stikine river (a mighty body of water–I checked Google Maps and followed it from its headwaters at Happy Lake), Alex needs to learn how to survive in the northern wilderness. With the help of an old hermit, he finally discovers what he truly is made of, but with great sacrifices along the way.

In a nutshell, this is a typical story of adventure and survival–and its realism is obvious. The wilds are dangerous, and few of us really know what the hell we’re doing without the comforts of modern technology. If you’re reading the book for an account of survival in the forests of British Columbia, you’ll find this novel compelling.

The problem is making it to the point where the narrative reaches a good pace–and feeling for the characters.

The novel is a bit sluggish, especially at the beginning. I feel like too much focus was given to the school scenes and the early parts of the expedition. I was more than halfway through before I felt I really wanted to keep reading.

Don’t get me wrong: the hardships of survival definitely come through. But I didn’t find myself really caring for Alex or his fate until the narrative reached a certain point. Unfortunately, it means that all that comes before is just… meh. Although I did care a little about Alex at the end, I couldn’t really feel anything for any of the other characters. And I guess given the narrative, that might be intentional, but this actually weakens the story rather than strengthens it.

As a whole, Pelton gives us an interesting if a bit unequal story that takes a little too long to lift off. I think a lot of the early sections could be condensed and edited; much of the backstory could be integrated in the events of the early expedition rather than inserted as separate chapters. The constant back and forth tended to put me out of the actual story and distracted more than helped. For example, it’s obvious that Smitty has it in for Alex; it’s not really necessary to give us an expository chapter about how and why.

There’s a good core to the story: it’s your age-old yet still-compelling boy-becomes-man, alone-and-lost-in-the-woods story that we still find fascinating, not matter how much our society claims to have conquered nature. Obviously, we have not.

There are deep lessons about the nature of will and humans’ unstoppable survival instinct; it’s also very much about learning when to bow to nature and live in harmony with her. It’s not overly moralizing, but the message is easy to discern.

If you like survival and adventure, you’ll definitely get some enjoyment out of this novel. But if you’re looking for stylish writing, a well-paced narrative or depth of character, you will have to look elsewhere.

This review first appeared on The Cryptosphere.

The Essential Guide To Digital Life: Bruce Schneier’s Data And Goliath

22253747

If you’d asked me a year ago, “do you worry about government surveillance?”, I would have said no. But today, my answer would be an empathic YES.

The scary part is that, like most Canadians, I hadn’t worried about that kind of surveillance until the current debate around C-51. (If you don’t know what that is, check it out here.) This terrifying bill would, among many other things, make it illegal to talk positively of terrorism on the internet. Just look at the news in Canada on any day lately, and you’ll see a report or an opinion on it. I personally like iPolitics and Rabble.

Reading Bruce Schneier’s Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World in this very sensitive time reinforced and confirmed my vehement disagreement with the bill, and with ubiquitous, mass digital surveillance in general.

Ubiquitous surveillance means that anyone could be convicted of lawbreaking, once the police set their minds to it. It is incredibly dangerous to live in a world where everything you do can be stored and brought forward as evidence against you at a later date.

In a sense, this book is the social and political companion to Dragnet Nation. It also lays out the theoretical, real-world basis for understanding the concerns brought up in The Circle. So if you were going to read these three books, I suggest you start with this one.

Schneier’s writing is crystal clear and compelling. The arguments he presents are strong and supported by about 100 pages of notes and sources–almost half the length of the book itself.

But what is his argument, really?

Data is the pollution problem of the information age, and protecting privacy is the environmental challenge. Almost all computers produce personal information. It stays around, festering. How we deal with it–how we contain it and how we dispose of it–is central to the health of our information society.

Schneier argues that privacy can be protected alongside security. As he shows, through numerous examples of how mass electronic surveillance has not done much to protect us against terrorist attacks (but how traditional investigation techniques actually have), there is no need to choose one over the other. In fact, more privacy reinforces security:

It’s a false trade-off. First, some security measures require people to give up privacy, but others don’t impinge on privacy at all: door locks, tall fences, guards, reinforced cockpit doors on airplanes. And second, privacy and security are fundamentally aligned. When we have no privacy, we feel exposed and vulnerable; we feel less secure. Similarly, if our personal spaces and records are not secure, we have less privacy. … Privacy is fundamental to the security of the individual.

Schneier does a particularly good job of two things: exposing the harms to individuals, society and democracy that mass surveillance causes, and delineating a framework for protecting privacy on an global scale.

The work of putting privacy back into the forefront of the discussion requires more than just a few articles and books, though. It demands a questioning of the fear culture we have been building up since 9/11. You can see it every day expressed in so many different ways: parents being arrested for letting their children go to the park and walking home alone; the pervasive Islamophobia in civil society and some media outlets; I’m sure you can think of your own examples.

I was a child in the 80s, and at 7 I went to the park with my friends, no parents around. I walked to school every day–again, no parents around. At 11, I was babysitting for the neighbours.  Today, these things would be unthinkable–and I don’t understand why. Is the world fundamentally more dangerous than it was 30 years ago? According to crime data, in fact, the world is safer. Crime rates, at least in Canada, are at their lowest level since the 60s.

We’re only scared because we let ourselves be scared… and we give up our privacy to offset that fear. But Schneier argues, and convincingly so, that giving in to irrational fear will only give the government more power to impose a true reign of terror–like East Germany after WWII–on all its citizens.

The Snowden revelations, which underpin most of the book, were the first real crack in the wall of NSA-sponsored mass surveillance. If Orwell could walk our streets and visit our internet, read our laws and see the secret machinations of data around the world, he would find our world has gone way, way beyond the wildest spurs of his dark imagination.

I’ve added a bunch of extensions on my browser to block tracking and ads. I’m considering getting TOR. I’m looking into getting encryption for my email. My location tracking has been off my phone for months because it killed my battery life, but if it hadn’t, I would turn it off now. I don’t want to be tracked, not because I have something to hide, but because I have a right to the government and corporations not knowing everything about me.

If you want to introduce your friends and family to the issues and harms around mass electronic surveillance, get them this book. (I suggest the library–support free access to information!) It’s an alarm bell that rationally counters every single pro-surveillance, anti-privacy argument that any lobby or PR campaign could make.

Disclaimer: This review first appeared on The Cryptosphere. The Cryptosphere received this book for free from the publisher. All opinions are my own. 

Review: Wellmaster: The Weeping Wall (vol. 1) by Alain Carver

The Wellmaster: The Weeping Wall by Alain CarverEarly in the TV show Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane wonders why people nowadays actually have to buy water from the store, in a bottle.

Abigail answers that Ichabod probably wouldn’t want to drink out of the stream (you know, because of the things that we dump in the environment like a giant trash can). I tried to find a clip, but couldn’t. It’s somewhere in the first season.

Anywho, among news of the serious drought affecting California (funny photos of an almost snowless Lake Tahoe) and Nestlé buying up British Columbia’s water for peanuts and reselling it for millions, concerns about the future of humanity in a constant global water crisis is fertile soil for fiction.

Alain Carver’s Wellmaster: The Weeping Wall is an interesting attempt at imagining a society where water is the currency of choice: the more valuable you are, the more water you get. At the centre of the village, it’s not food or money that’s distributed: it’s litres of water.

Water is so precious that every drop of moisture, even your own sweat, is saved up:

Life was like that for us, together. Looking back now, we spent every minute that we could together, Tarka and me. I was young and small, thick curls tight against my head, just like you now, and although Tarka surpassed me in age, strength, and popularity, I think she needed me as much as I needed her. Tarka was my best friend.

That afternoon, she pulled a hand through my sweaty hair, a breathless smile spread on her face, and rubbed the palm of her hand against the rim of a jar to store the liquid. The hot sun beat down through the gaping windows.

This is a short book, a novella really, about 40 pages. It’s a childhood adventure told through the eyes of the grown-up hero, about a time which, I hope, is long past. The main character is an inquisitive child, still surprisingly innocent in a harsh, harsh world where people are left to die of thirst because they are sick or old, and where torture is as simple as watching water get wasted as you burn in a heated room.

After an ordinary day cavorting through the town and watching a protest against the power of the Wellmaster, the hero and Tarka get embroiled in a game of cat and mouse with the town’s chief law officer that will reveal the cracks in the power of the Wellmaster, but also his (or her) insane privilege: unfettered access to water.

The world Carver builds is compelling and interesting. It could be us, someday, sooner than we think. It definitely has potential should the author want to develop it into a full series of novels.

Carver’s writing is a little rough around the edges sometimes, but is capable of carrying convincing action scenes as well as relatable emotions. I do trust that a few more novels will polish that writing right away. It’s pretty great for a first work, compared to other self-published stuff I read, and from much more experienced writers. I especially enjoyed the fast pace and the characters with whom we can easily identify.

I hope Carver decides to continue exploring this attractive world. There is potential for a much more developed narrative, an epic about power, the will to survive and friendship. This book feels preliminary, a prologue to something that’s worthy of much deeper, sweeping writing.

Disclaimer: Alain Carver is a friend (writing under a pseudonym) and I received the book for free. However, and as always, the review is my own.

Review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation by Jeff VandermeerThere’s a good reason why, in Canada, we have a genre called “wilderness Gothic”. These are the early novels about Canada, exemplified by works such as Wacousta, where the outside environment, the wilderness, is a character, an evil presence, something to be kept well away.

Contrary to the American attitude towards wilderness, which is one of control and conquest, colonists to Canada (at least in the 18th and 19th centuries) saw the large, unending forests as frightful, unknowable areas inhabited by “wild men” (Indians, of course, always represented as borderline barbaric, half-animals, half-humans) who knew but did not divulge their secrets.

In a way, Annihilation, the first book of the Southern Reach Trilogy, is a reinterpretation of the wilderness gothic genre for a science-fiction audience. It’s about a wild space, called Area X, that has been cut off from the rest of the world for 30 years. Nobody really knows why it happened or what Area X wants or does, especially not the secret organization responsible for its management and study, called the Southern Reach.

In this first book, we follow the biologist of the twelfth expedition (there have been many previous expeditions, with different levels of success or unsuccess) as she experiences Area X and uncovers its mysteries and secrets. The very beginning of the novel expresses something akin to the fear of being engulfed by the wilderness that was such a common topic in early Canadian fiction:

Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge direction, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning. The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.

It’s difficult to pin down Annihilation on its own. I’ve read reviews that decry the scientific voice of the narrator, but I thought it was perfectly in character: the biologist was asked to observe and record her reactions, and she does so from the point of view of, well, a biologist. Her character is more interested in ecosystems than she is in people. She may not be easily relatable, but her attempt at a detached voice makes her struggle all the more heart-wrenching.

The novel is part scientific account, part wilderness gothic, part environmental criticism, part descent into madness narrative. As the story advances, more and more questions are raised–and none are really answered.

This book is one of the most interesting, terrifying, weird and original works of fiction I’ve read in quite a while. It doesn’t have the page turner quality of The Martian, but at 200 pages is a quick read. I even put off watching House of Cards to finish this damn book, to give you an idea.

Annihilation flirts with the uncanny in a way I have never experienced. Reading it was like looking at the world through a broken kaleidoscope: experiences are stretched and refracted, ideas and objects never quite stable, always on the edge between reality and imagination. Is what you’re seeing, hearing, touching real? Is your capacity to understand, to react, to decide being manipulated by some outside force?

And what is it with all the animals with strangely human eyes?

Spam Is A Numbers Game: Brian Krebs on Unsolicited Email

Spam Nation by Brian Krebs

Spam: once a gross meat-like substance sold in tins that could probably survive a nuclear apocalypse.

Now, it’s the stuff that clogs your inbox: penis pills and health insurance and lottery winnings and nursing degrees and whatever else spammers think they can convince at least a small percentage of people to spend money on.

I’m not sure if these are scams, but according to Brian Kreb’s Spam Nation, at least in the heyday of the pharmaceutical spam era, most people actually got what they paid for.

Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime-from Global Epidemic to Your Front Door covers the relationships between two rival Russian spammers and their crews, the gaggle of hackers and programmers that orbit them, and the consequences of their war on the world, through the Internet.

The book definitely presents a relevant, topical subject. Spam is the bane of the Information Age because it never ends, because it clogs up our inboxes, and because, despite the growing sophistication of anti-spam filters, some still make it through.

Indeed, spam email has become the primary impetus for the development of malicious software… These botnets are virtual parasites that require care and constant feeding to stay one step ahead of antivirus tools and security firms that work to dismantle the networks. To keep their bot colonies thriving, spammers … must work constant to spread and mutate the digital disorders that support them… Botnet operators need to continuously attack and seize control over additional computers and create new ways to infiltrate previously infected ones.

Spam is supported by millions of computers around the world–any one of the many computers you have used in your lifetime may have been part of it. And if you have been used as a carrier for spam, you may have been infected by a bot whose patron was one of two Russian master cybercriminals: Igor Gusev or Pavel Vrublevski.

Krebs presents compelling stories about these two figures: an early collaboration, a falling out, and a devastating rivalry that unravelled the spamming underworld. Unfortunately, the stories weren’t always easy to follow.

Some of the chapters seemed out of place, or out of time. Although I was interested to learn about those who order and consume pills from spammy pharmacies, I felt it wasn’t really what the book was about. It distracted me from the main story and just got in the way of actually understanding the bigger narrative.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s an excellent piece of investigative journalism. But being good at writing short-form pieces doesn’t automatically a good book make. I feel like the structure could have been revised, the narrative clarified. The “who’s who” list at the beginning definitely helps, but I felt lost more often than I wanted to be.

There is definitely plenty to learn from Spam Nation. I was fascinated by the political, social and criminal surroundings that enable such large operations to operate with impunity for so long. But the book too often swerved away from the meat of the story for my taste. A shorter book with a tighter narrative would have been just as satisfying, and just as effective.

It’s a good read though, if you can just remember to stay focused on the main story. It’s accessible too, without too much technical jargon to bog the writing down. If the origin and nature of all the emails you get but never read interests you, this is a good way to spend a few hours.

This review first appeared on The Cryptosphere.

Short Reviews Of A Bunch Of Books, March Edition

All right, I haven’t been very faithful to my readers. I’ve been publishing some reviews, both here and on The Cryptosphere, but I definitely haven’t reviewed every book I’ve read in the last two months.

So although I won’t be doing an in-depth review for each of them, here are a few thoughts about the books that I have unfortunately skipped in the last weeks.

The 7 habits of highly effective people reviewThe 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey

This book needs no introduction, and I’ve been meaning to read it for a long. Although a bit dated (over 25 years old), many of its principles and ideas still hold true today.

Although my academic mind did have definite doubts about claims such as “there are universal principles that apply to all humans everywhere at all times”, you can take just what you need out of the book and leave the rest. For me, it was the chapter on empathic listening. It really redefined the way I viewed my relationships and led my conversations. It took me out of my egocentric worldview and enabled me to start imagining what the world looks like from another person’s point of view.

Verdict: you take the good with the dubious, but there’s still some good, useful stuff in there.

18656044The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey

It seems hard to imagine a book that would redefine, or at least reimagine, the zombie genre. I’m not a particularly fervent zombie fan, but the recommendations for this book made me pause.

And I certainly don’t regret reading it. The main character, Melanie, is a 10-year-old girl with a genius intellect, but she’s kept in a cell and is taken to class tied to a wheelchair. After an attack from hordes of “hungries”, she escapes along with her teacher, a scientist and two soldiers. A fateful trek to London will forever change their lives, and the human race too.

I really enjoyed this novel. It didn’t revel in the grossness of zombie gore and had lots of psychological depth. The ending was especially satisfying, if not happy.

Verdict: entertaining read, whether or not you’re a fan of the zombie genre.

18651980Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

I’m not quite sure how I managed to read through the entire thing. The pace was a bit slow for my tastes, and some of the characters difficult to relate to. But this depiction of poor, rural Montana in the early 80s is filled with questions about freedom, the American identity and the meaning of family.

The story follows Pete Snow, a social worker assigned the territory in the wilds of Montana. One day, he meets Benjamin Pearl, a boy who appears half-feral and malnourished. As he tries to develop a relationship with Benjamin and his father, a paranoid survivalist named Jeremiah, he comes head to head with the FBI, his own assumptions about his life and his responsibilities towards his family.

At almost 500 pages, this is a long read for today’s standards, but it is ultimately rewarding. Not everyone will have the patience to witness the development of Pete and the Pearl’s relationship, but if you do, you’ll especially appreciate Henderson’s rendering of the wild, often threatening Montana wilderness.

Verdict: a good read if the themes interest you; prepare to invest some time.

1850579610% Happier by Dan Harris

A book about meditation that’s not mystical and actually a bit funny? Sure, I’ll give it a read.

I’m actually glad I did read it. Not that I needed to be convinced of the benefits of meditation, but at least it gives me a good argument to share with those who are skeptical about meditation.

The book is short and entertaining. It presents meditation in the context of our fast-paced, competitive lives and doesn’t go into “woo-woo” stuff. More than anything, it’s plenty accessible through its engaging writing.

Verdict: a good read for newbie and experienced meditators alike, or if you’re interested in the topic.

22662956Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This book was a little apocalyptic pleasure to read. A devastating flu kills 99% of the planet’s population, and twenty years later the survivors and their descendants live in small, parsed settlements along old highways–mostly around rest stops and motels. Among this devastated human landscape, a troupe of artists–musicians and actors–circuits around the Great Lakes, a little bit like medieval theatre troupes did.

This is a more literary approach to the dystopian style that’s flooding our reading lists lately. The focus is more on the characters and their relationships than about the fall of civilization. It’s slow and thoughtful rather than action-packed, but you still get a decent glimpse of what life would be like without electricity, and gas, and all the modern technology. Basically, what life would be like if we lived in the medieval era.

Verdict: a good read, deserves the attention it received by critics and bloggers.

22663053The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

All right, I’m late to the Hilary Mantel party, and this is actually my first book by her.

This collection of short stories (not too many, actually) is a nice quick read if you need a Mantel fix waiting for her next novel. Her stories are mostly about middle-class women with secrets: secret lovers, secret hiding places, secret ambitions, secret harbouring of would-be Thatcher assassins.

My favourite story was “Terminus”, which was more about language than plot. I loved its atmosphere and the gorgeous writing. Mantel handles prose like a chef handles a knife: expertly, with intent and with delicious results.

Verdict: a nice read if you want some short-form Mantel or if you like contemporary short stories.

What next?

I’ve got 1 review coming up on The Cryptosphere next week for Spam Nation, and 2 reviews of fiction for here: Annihilation and The Wellmaster: The Weeping Wall.

Stay tuned!

Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers, image via Salon
The Circle by Dave Eggers, image via Salon

 

Does the amount of things that Google knows about you scare you? In my last review, I discussed Angwin’s Dragnet Nation. This week, I’m reviewing a fictional representation of this idea pushed to its extreme: a network so all encompassing and so pervasive that, for all intents and purposes, it ends up replacing the government–The Circle.

Mae, a young university graduate, gets a job at The Circle, a company that’s a mashup of Google, Facebook, Paypal and Twitter. In fact, in the world of the book, The Circle replaces all of these and buys all their archives.

At first, Mae takes this job as a job. She has a life outside of the Circle and doesn’t participate much in its social (both online and real life) aspects. But soon enough, the expectation of her participation in social media and social events force her, more or less, to become a full-time Circler.

Mae quickly becomes enthralled with the instant gratification of smiles, zings and messages, of signing online petitions and receiving comments on photos and videos. As her world becomes increasingly more knowable through real-time data and her ever-growing social networks, she gets embroiled deeper and deeper into the Circles plans for worldwide transparency and information control.

The novel is more a book of ideas than an enthralling story with interesting characters. I found Mae to be rather naive and barely self-aware. She is obviously flawed, but her lack of self-questioning and the quick way she gets taken in by the cult-like Circle culture is just too easily used as a rhetorical device to make an intellectual point.

The plot could also have used some tightening. I felt the novel took its good old time to get to the interesting part, and I can easily think of at least a dozen scenes that were unnecessary. I couldn’t care much about the central conflict–if there was even one–and ended up feeling, well, not much at all for Mae.

So, as I said earlier, this novel is more of a vehicle for making an argument about the dangers of too much transparency, of the disappearance of privacy even in our own homes, our bedrooms, our past, even our minds. It hints at a sort of techno-dystopian future without quite getting there. The interesting thing that the novel does raise, though, is how most of us are readily willing to enter the surveillance system. Are slaves still slaves if they don’t know they’re enslaved? Is surveillance acceptable if the majority of the population subscribes, welcomes, and even asks for it?

And in such a world, is access to privacy still a right, or does it become another inaccessible utopia?

As an intellectual exercise, this was an interesting book to read. As fiction, however, it is only mildly successful. In the language of the novel, The Circle gets a “meh”.

Review previously published on The Cryptosphere.