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Tom Clancy's Net Force

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"In the year 2010, computers are the new superpowers. Those who control them, control the world. To enforce the Net Laws, Congress creates the ultimate computer security agency within the FBI: Net Force."

Net Force The basis of the story -- the rise of a technically sophisticated federal law enforcement agency -- strikes me as plausible. Given that the Internet has become a global fabric that supports communication, commerce, and the exchange of services, law enforcement would certainly become as much an issue online as it has been offline. The highly-distributed nature of the Internet also makes it a natural fit for Federal law enforcement (as is true of offline interstate commerce). That such a group would exist inside of FBI makes sense (even today, “cybercrime” is one of FBI's top five priorities).

I picked up the first Net Force volume in an airport bookstore, being scheduled for a flight that got delayed and in need of a light diversion. That volume was first published in January 1999. Like the Clancy series Op Center, Net Forceis a collaborative effort with Steve Pieczenik to produce a series of novels around a particular theme. Net Force is a consideration of what law enforcement and counterterror activity might look like in only a few years. The selection was a good one for the trip: the reading is light and I get through a whole volume of roughly 375 pages in one trip.

Characters in the Net Force series are predictably Clancy. The women are beautiful, smart, and independent. (In a twist from usual Clancy, instead of all being doctors, the women are all martial arts instructors.) The men are tough, intelligent, and competitive. (In usual Clancy form, even the guy who thinks about things like properly terminating Ethernet cables carries a powerful sidearm and can send both rounds of a double-tap through a bullseye.)

Given the level of action that readers seeing the Clancy name might expect, I thought there might be some difficulty delivering. Two things actually help here. First, this is a young adult series, so it's entirely possible that these readers have only heard about Clancy secondhand, possibly having seen a movie like The Hunt for Red October. Second is a literary device that might work for the intended audience but one that I find annoying: the virtual reality (VR) human interface.

In the novel, technical tasks that are performed by sitting at a workstation are not described literally. Instead, there is a premise that a sophisticated sort of computer-human interface allows the user to slip on a 3-D headset and to be immersed in a virtual world of the user's own making. Presumably, the better the technical skill of the user, the more realistic the virtual world he has constructed. A user who is jumping from one network to another, for example, will not invoke a command like ssh from one host to another in a terminal window, but will instead call up a VR scene and climb into a car so he can drive down a speeding highway. Other people he might recognize can be seen on the highway, should they happen to be passing along the same stretch of network.

For a guy who screwed around with VR ten years ago, it's a bit difficult to swallow. (Maybe this is what publishers mean by a “young adult” book: one whose readers had better be young enough not to have “screwed around with VR ten years ago.”) Even if we assume for the sake of argument that all of the technical problems that arise from working this way are somehow solved, we still confront the basic problem that all history of computing is against: why would someone with such technical skill want to use a computer through some kind of metaphor? If you're trying to find something, if you're trying to see why something behaves the way it does, if you're trying to debug a problem, you're not going to care what it's like or how it could be represented. You only care about what it is. This is why even in this world of graphical and even video user interfaces, when you look at the best programmers, you'll find them sitting in front of a screen with window after window full of text.

This pushes Smokin' Jay Gridley, the seniormost of Net Force's technical staff, right to the edge of plausibility, to the point that I have to put forth effort to accept the character, and even then, he annoys me. The seeds seem to have been planted in the latest book, Springboard, for Gridley to follow the lead of every other recognizable character from early in the series, taking an exit. Were he developed more as a character, and we got some idea of his interests besides running around in VR-land all the time and his views of the world besides its inability to produce someone with his technical prowess, there might be something there worth keeping around. But Gridley is the stereotypical undersocialized geek in too many ways. The stereotype doesn't really work, because although there are plenty of people like that in computing, the fact is that the very best of all are actually quite well-rounded, able to speak with some authority on a wide variety of subjects well beyond the cozy confines of computer science, mathematics, and physics.

A big villain through the whole series has been something called CyberNation, a network service that is attempting to get itself declared a sovereign nation with only cyberspace as its geography. CyberNation operatives do all kinds of nasty things in the real world to help them achieve their objective, while others work to provide the best online experience to increase CyberNation's base of customers, or as they call them, citizens. In Springboard, the remainder of CyberNation (that Net Force's “military wing” didn't blow up two volumes ago) has been on good behavior and wind up having to work together to face a common enemy, a new Bad Guy from the east.

Overall, I'd have to say that the books have been a fun diversion, and without question they beat watching a rehash of the headlines on CNN in an airport television, or pretty much anything on television, for that matter. There are some interesting ideas that are raised and explored in these books, but somehow in the interest of keeping them accessible, too many things are glossed over, too much has been oversimplified, and too much has been stereotyped. Trying to fix these deficiencies while also packing in a story that involves using computers to fight it out until a real location can be identified so stuff can be blown up might well blow the page budget on any given book. A pity, that, because it could be far more interesting.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2005-04-12 02:39 PM
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