Review: Xperts: The Paranet

I got a copy of this book for free when I attended the author’s talk at the CERIAS Symposium last March. So that’s why I happen to have a copy of it. I finally got around to reading it while travelling to and from last week’s Cyber Corps Symposium.

The executive summary: Xperts: The Parasuck.

Details (and spoilers, as though you were going to read this anyway) inside!

I strongly suspected going into this that it was going to be bad science fiction. I mean, look at the title. Even better, look at the cover. Could it be more generic “bad sci-fi”? I’ve read the book, and I still can’t fathom what the cover art has to do with anything. Sadly, the contents pretty much lived up (down?) to my expectations.

The bulk of the book takes place in the year 2080, when just about everything on the planet is networked together. At least, until that network fails catastrophically in the middle of the night, shutting down pretty much all but the most antiquated devices still laying around here or there. The plot follows various characters, each ultimately related together in an extended family, as they struggle to defend themselves from the ensuing chaos as the world shuts down permanently.

And chaos ensues unbelievably rapidly, once all systems and communications (except for the magical devices that let the main characters telepathically communicate in an inexplicably limited form, ugh) are gone. Apparently no one actually tries to fix the problems, instead immediately hording whatever supplies they can scrounge and heading off to the middle of nowhere for protection. Even the whiz-bang computer scientists immediately start trying to flee civilization before the looting and rioting break out. Soon human society is reduced to roving bands of thugs, insular communities barracading themselves in, or despots trying to parlay the chaos to their own advantage (particularly the wacko who caused the failure in the first place).

This part of the book isn’t bad per se, but it isn’t particularly good either. I’ll be generous and assume that the awkward language in many parts is a side effect of having been translated from German. And I can even put up with the author showing off his knowledge of geography by doing little more than rattling off a series of names in his descriptions of a journey (the passed by X, where they saw A, B, and C, etc.). But that doesn’t excuse the footnotes.

You heard me. Footnotes. In a piece of fiction. Some of them cross-reference other books in the Xperts series. Others cite references for some of the statements made by the author. But then there are some like footnote 27, on page 138, on a speech one of the characters is making. The footnote reads, and I quote, “He is exaggerating here.” That’s right, the author doesn’t trust the reader to figure this out on his own, as though the reader would blindly trust the words of the megalomaniac who threw the planet back into the Stone Age in order to attract followers to his cult and take over the United States.

And then the book goes from mediocre to just plain bad. You see, everything up until now was just a computer simulation of the future relative to 2021! (“It was just a dream” strikes again!) It was a warning, generated by the magical ancient computer, of what would come if the “heroes” of the story didn’t do something. After deliberating about what could be done to prevent such a catastrophic failure — much of these little lectures come almost verbatim from the author’s talk at the CERIAS Symposium — they decide that, gosh darn it, people are just too stupid to realize the dangers of building a global single point of failure and relying on technology so blindly as to make reading and writing mere electives in school if all you do is tell them about it. No, the only way to do this is to cause the very sort of failure they’re trying to prevent; that’ll teach them a lesson!

So the “heroes” of the story decide to launch a terrorist attack on the electrical infrastructure of the developed world. Oh, but they’re good guys because they try really hard to prevent lives from being lost in the process! Or, at least they rationalize it by saying that in the long run they’ll be saving more lives than will be lost because of their actions. Oh, and they use their superpowers “parabilities” to rescue a boat full of passengers when its navigation system goes out during the failure.

What a heartwarming story. The only even marginably likable character here is the journalist who suspects something funny is up with the “heroes’” dummy corporation and eventually figures out their connection to the attack they’re planning. By, um, sleeping with the hacker who wrote the virus that brings down the power grid. And when she confronts the lead terrorist hero about what he’s done, he tries to explain himself, and then she offers to join him.

I’m not sure what turns me off the most. The fact that the first two-thirds of the book are just a simulation? Page after page of lectures on the problems of globalization and the author’s plan to tax the problem away? The endless parade of deus ex machina? Or the fact that we’re supposed to be cheering for the people who are so arragant they believe the lesser folk need to be terrorized into building more robust systems? They’re all fine choices.

There could’ve been a decent story made out of the first two-thirds of the book, if you threw away the magical telekawhatzits and the “oops, just a simulation!” part, and maybe change things so that mankind eventually faces the problems they’ve wrought and work through them instead of quite literally heading for the hills at the first sign of trouble. The thing about bringing human society to a total collapse is that you pretty much write yourself into a corner with no escape but the reset button. And I’ve got no problem with wanting the story to be a lesson on what needs to be done to prevent such a catastrophe, but presenting those lessons in a far less preachy tone would help quite a bit.

(And despite what I might have implied above, I don’t necessarily have a problem with terrorists being presented as the good guys. I mean, I liked Deep Space Nine, and I’ve got a story idea kicking around the back of my head where the good guy is out to destroy the world. But in this presentation, it just doesn’t work.)

As it is, there’s really not a whole lot to recommend here. Maybe if we’re lucky, all of this will turn out to be a computer simulation to warn the author about what could happen if he doesn’t change the way he’s going to write Xperts: The Paranet.

2 Responses

  1. I’m glad i didn’t read this book.

  2. Oh, it’s far better experienced directly instead of vicariously. You’re missing all the awkwardly worded sex scenes!

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