Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: The Heretic

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, September 8, 2001

My mind flashed to the falcon with which I shared a small piece of Montana. My sense of connection was slipping away. I could only see him from the scrub, wings spread, grabbing air, talons stretching toward me. Funny. I had never thought to look at him from the point of view of the field mouse.

A fast-moving cyberpunk tale that is about as realistic as it can be and still be called “cyberpunk”.

RecommendationBorrow
AuthorJason K. Chapman
Year2000
Length212 pages
Book Rating5

About the only non-realistic part of the cyperpunk genre it’s kept are those cross-platform virii--“agents” that can travel from platform to platform across the net, and which literally travel. Agents that you see today, in for example some web browsers, never leave your computer. They request information from your computer and the information is sent to your computer Even search engine “spiders” are just better-programmed variations of that. And even those viruses that do travel from computer to computer using Microsoft’s visual basic (or ActiveX or .NET or whatever else Microsoft is calling VBScript today) aren’t “alive” until they’re activated on the other end by a human or local computer program. Perhaps if Microsoft’s VBScript becomes the language of the .NET as they want, such detached programs will become technically possible, but they still aren’t going to be as impressive as they are even in this realistic novel.

Computer science lesson out of the way, this is a real page-turner. I know a book is good when my office mates ask me if I was out too late partying the night before, the morning after I start reading it.

Thomas Paine, Galileo, Jake the Heretic, all aliases of the same person, has separated himself completely from the world. Deleted himself. Went all the way back to his birth and removed that, too. Because the world trusts computers implicitly, removing himself from computer databases makes him untraceable--unknowable. But now someone called the Sphinx is tracking him--or at least, his alter-ego Galileo--down. And while the Sphinx is not very good, the attempt brings him out enough to accidentally alert a more dangerous opponent to his existence. (You can parse that sentence whichever way you want. If you don’t exist, and someone kills you, is there really a murder?)

So he has to find out who the Sphinx is, and at the same time avoid the more dangerous opponent who is tagging along without the Sphinx’s knowledge. It’s a fast-paced ride that was hard for me to put down.

While the story is placed in the future, it is an indeterminate future that is very much like the present--a lot like the “twenty minutes into the future” of Max Headroom. Most of it is today with more computers controlling everything. Computer programmers (“wizards”) are hired through the Guild, a computer programmer’s union that looks vaguely like an evolved Usenix SAGE group. Guildmembers are kept anonymous to avoid the possibility of corruption. Jake doesn’t particularly like the Guild, but he’s sending Galileo up through their ranks in the hopes of spiting them. Galileo isn’t just an alias, it’s also an AI, an artificially intelligent program. It can handle some jobs on its own without his intervention. Jake thinks it would be a good joke on the Guild to sneak an AI into their membership.

Jake’s a great programmer, probably one of the greatest in the world, which helps alleviate the unrealistic nature of the cross-platform virii that he’s written which search the net for information. He calls them SPRITEs. They can go almost anywhere and find almost anything, as long as it’s stored somewhere on a computer connected to the net. And nowadays, most things are.

Jake “The Heretic” is a little too good. “Too good a hacker, or too morally good?” asked a friend of mine. “Both.” He’s the mythical “hacker” that hackers envision when they say “you don’t mean hacker, you mean cracker. Hackers are the white hats.” He’s physically good, too: ex-FBI, who wasn’t a field agent but requested, and was approved for, standard FBI training.

The ending is disappointing, at least to me. Partly because it turns on the least realistic aspect of this deliberately realistic novel, and partly because it wasn’t an ending at all. Not only is there no resolution to the conflict, there’s no resolution to the mystery behind the conflict. We don’t know any more at the end then we do at the beginning about the mysterious forces afflicting Jake the Heretic. The people he engages to assist him towards the end come practically out of nowhere. We’ve met two of them briefly, and one of those two very briefly.

In some ways, Jake the Heretic is a bit stupid. For example, he’s familiar enough with obscure freedom writers to name one of his personas “Thomas Paine”, but doesn’t recognize that another person is using an alias also when that person says their name is “John Mill”. He has to have it practically bludgeoned into him with the book, just like this was a poor movie.

What this almost sounds like is the backstory behind a cyberpunk role-playing game, with the game starting just after the last page of the novel.

The story is written first person, from the perspective of “The Heretic”. Now that no one knows about him, he is egotistical enough that he wants a record of his great works after he dies. I could hear echos of the poem “Ozymandias” when he writes “In your hands, you hold a legend”, referring to the book, his memoirs.

The book touches on a number of things, but doesn’t go into depth on any of them. The blurb mentions that it’s about “control of the very fabric of reality”, but it doesn’t go nearly into the depth that Stanislaw Lem does in “The Futurological Congress”. It does go Lem one better in the fact that it is clearly placed in our world, the world of the present. Most of the hacking that goes on in “The Heretic” is hacking that almost, but not quite, could occur right now. Those are issues that need to be examined in modern literature, and this is a start.

The book “blends high-speed action with the fantasy elements of virtual reality”, according to the same blurb, but the fantasy elements for all practical purposes don’t come into play at all until after the book is finished. The “romance” that the story “crosses into” appears to be little more than some wish-fulfillment on the part of the author. The romance is more movie-like than book-like; it develops as if this were a movie: one moment it’s not there, the next it is.

That said, it’s a fun book. It could have been much better--especially if the 200 pages had been expanded into 300 to cover the real ending. But I really found it hard to put down until the ending, which itself is a testament to the author.

The Heretic

Jason K. Chapman

Recommendation: Borrow

If you enjoyed The Heretic…

If you enjoy cyberpunk, you might also be interested in Dark City, Pi, The Matrix, Blackout, and The Futurological Congress.