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Updated: April 6, 2013 16:26 IST

Virus fever

Parvathi Nayar
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Parvathi Nayar finds the prose pedestrian in a novel where technology works as both villain and hero.

Technology, in one sense, established its claim on the literary world with the genre that came to be termed cyberpunk. It was an exciting genre — very effectively used by William Gibson in particular — with far-reaching literary and cinematic impact. Now technology infiltrates contemporary literature in many ways, not least as electronic books, a game changer that threatens to push ink on paper into the realm of museum artefact. Equally, technology has become the subject matter in many kinds of geek lit, techno and cyber thrillers. As in Mark Russinovich’s second novel Trojan Horse, where technology works as both villain and hero. The author’s premise is that we live in a computerised planet, and that the evil lurking in the virtual world is not contained: it can reach out and destroy our very “real” lives.

Russinovich is described as one of the world’s leading experts on cyber-security; he works at Microsoft as a Technical Fellow, Microsoft’s senior-most technical position. But if his resume gives the book authority, it is let down by some pedestrian prose and plotting.

Two years have now passed the events of his first book, Zero Day in which Al-Qaida’s targeted attacks on the computer infrastructure of the Western world. The author brings back the protagonists he created: cyber-security analyst Jeff Aiken and his work partner Daryl Haugen, with whom he is romantically linked as well.

The pair are drawn back into the dangerous world of international cyber-espionage, thanks to a virus that operates like a Trojan horse; i.e., concealed beneath a seemingly benign computer file received by a person’s personal computer is some vicious malware, specifically programmed to change data without leaving any obvious trace that it has done so. It’s a very scary thought: that a virus is able to latch on to individual systems and can, for instance, send out mail where the intended meaning is completely reversed — without sender or receiver realising that anything is amiss.

The force behind the Trojan Horse virus in the book is the Chinese government — this is not a plot spoiler, but something we are made aware of, early in the book. The Chinese authorities have invested significant amounts in a labour force whose job it is to write code that will infiltrate the Western world’s computer systems. This malware might be instantly activated or else lie dormant till summoned, like some sort of double agent.

The book also has agents in play in the real world, such as Iranian undercover agent Ahmed Hossein al-Rashid, Col. Jai Feng, the People’s Liberation Army’s computer warfare chief, and the sensuous Saliha, a Turk immigrant in Prague, who is an unwitting mule for the baddies.

Also part of the Chinese cyber — also not a plot spoiler — is the creation of circumstances that will allow Iran to test their nuclear weapons. What’s standing in the way of the Iranians is the famous Stuxnet virus that has, actually, been all over the news and the cyberworld. Back in the world of the novel, we are told that some of the cleverer parts of the Stuxnet code was written by cyber power couple Aiken and Haugen. Russinovich, unfortunately, hasn’t been able to crack the literary code that would have transformed Aiken and Haugen into real protagonists about whom we care and in whom we are interested.

Those in the know will definitely appreciate Russinovich’s technical accuracy and timeliness in exposing our vulnerability as individuals, corporates and countries to cyber attacks. For others, it’s all a bit laborious for there’s also a lot of nerd-speak and extensive technical details about the cyber world. 

How would you judge whether you are part of the book’s intended audience? Well, if you’ve never even heard the term “malware” for example, nor know about the Conficker Virus, or if explanations such as “it is effectively invisible without resorting to rootkit techniques”, then chances are that Trojan Horse is not for you.

Trojan Horse, Mark Russinovich, Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin’s Press), Rs.499.

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