Wednesday, December 22

Brain Jack

by Brian Falkner
Random House  2010


In a post-post-9/11 America, the most deadly threat comes from the Internet, and Sam and a small cadre of young hackers are the sole line of defense...  

Sam is a hacker, a freak, a natural.  He can code on the fly and read viruses and cut them off before they can do any damage. And like any teen boy he uses these powers for good, which is to say he and his buddy Fargas dip into a large multinational company so they can dip into their bank accounts and order up some sweet new laptops and neural headsets that allow you to jack into the Internet world through thought waves.

Seeing as this is the near dystopic future, life isn't all roses.  Terrorists have taken out Las Vegas with a nuclear weapon and Homeland Security is now on par with the CIA in terms of proactively making sure the US remains protected.  The problem is that this includes attacks via the Internet, and Sam's little cyber crime has alerted the big boys.  He thinks he's free and clear until he attends a super secret hacker's convention that in turn becomes an online meet-up on the White House servers which, in fact, is really a sting operation to catch Sam.  Once caught, it takes him only a few short weeks to figure out how to get out of the minimum security facility... and right into the arms of Homeland Security, who set the entire thing up as a sort of protracted pre-employment test.  It was the only way to find the best of the best, and Sam passed with flying colors.  It also means he either works for the government, or he returns to jail.

Once he's working for Homeland Security Sam's job is to serve as wingman for Dodge, a punk he'd encountered back at the hacker convention.  Their job is to monitor Internet traffic and sniff out potential threats.  One attack appears to destroy them one moment, and then in the next be their savior. This phantom of the Internet also removes spammers and online gaming, things many are happy to see gone.  But as they try to understand what is going on Sam senses something darker is in the works, something dangerous that involves the neuro headsets that get people addicted to being so jacked into the Internet that, like his fried Fargas, they cease to do anything but stay plugged in until they die.

And once Sam figures that out, all hell breaks loose.  Like internal civil war and mass hypnosis hell.  Families torn apart, one branch of the military against the other type of hell.  Can Sam and his friends save the country before it destroys itself?  And if he can, will Sam be destroyed in the process?

This story has fingerprints of The Matrix all over it, what with an entire world full of people jacked into a world where they can just "know" things due to the collective hive mind.  But the battle scenes with virus attacks read like air-to-air fighter jet combat, written with assured technical jargon and a very real sense that this sort of thing could be happening in our future.  Faulkner's plotting and pacing is perfect, the jogs between real world action and battle online taut, and there isn't a single page of fat or filler to be found.  Books that push beyond 200 pages have to prove themselves to me, but half way through these 350 pages I knew I was in good hands and eagerly wanted to know how Falkner was going to make this work.

It has been a long time since I picked up a book that I wanted to race to the end of, and if this isn't already optioned for a major motion picture then someone is asleep at the wheel.  That said, I hope someone in Hollywood is asleep at the wheel, because this book could so easily be ruined in the wrong hands.

As for that phantom that takes over the Internet and sets the country against itself, I believe Pogo said it best: We have met the enemy and he is us.
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