Book Review: ECHELON
ECHELON is the first novel of author Josh Conviser. The trade paperback weighs in at a 289 pages and retails for 13.95. Although it is a work of speculative fiction/sci-fi, ECHELON has it's roots in the US government's very real electronic surveillance program of the same name. That, combined with the current wiretap scandals and domestic spying programs coming out of Washington, makes ECHELON's theme very poignant.
The novel is set in a not so distance future where the government spy machine has long since graduated from the small potatoes of running any one particular country. Echelon is now a deeply secret almost legendary organization that directs the fate of the world by controlling the the flow of information. The populace live very safe, albeit completely controlled lives. But this isn't the Oceania of Orwell's 1984. There is no jack booted gestapo or shining faced Supreme Leader. Echelon dominates quietly, unseen by the huddled masses. They employ force either by manipulating global military powers, or through the use of highly trained well equipped covert operatives.
The book has some very noticeable flaws, but that is to be expected in a new author's first endeavor. Josh Conviser made his creative bones in Hollywood and that is apparent in much of the writing. The dialog descends into witty banter more often than it should, and combined with the adrenaline soaked action that ensues, the book has a very cinematic feel. Some of the action scenes go over the top or beyond the levels of believability without needing to. For instance, the addition of a Nitrous Oxide element to an already harrowing escape sequence. In addition, occasional instances of Conviser's prose piles up the descriptors to a point that borders on melodrama. He also falls victim to a couple of rookie writing habits, such as using a reflective surface to trigger a characters description.
But the good points of ECHELON greatly outweigh its faults. First off, the characters are what really pull you into the story. The two leads are a duo of Eschelon operatives. One, Ryan Laing is a spy/commando who is augmented with some bleeding edge nanotechnology that makes him super human and nearly indestructible. He begins the story as a gung-ho field agent with a collection of gear that would shame batman. His partner/controller is Sarah Peters, a young but gifted hacker that is constantly immersed in the global flow of data. She is a much more "human" character that is often literally in the back of Ryan's mind. The two of them develop as the story progresses, and their plights succeed in keeping you in the action and turning pages. The supporting cast includes the fatherly Christopher Turing (his name no doubt a tip of the hat to the man himself), head of Echelon. The shadowy administrator Jason Sachs, who oversees Echelon's daily operations and dirty work. And David Madda, Echelon gadget man, a 21st century hybridization of James Bond's Q and Max Headroom's Bryce.
Through out most of the story, you are unsure of who exactly the heroes are, and seeing as all of this is coming from the perspective of a globe controlling intelligence agency, it begs the question are any heroes at all. One of the initial hang ups I had with ECHELON was the moral ambiguity of it. While settling into the book, everything was filtered through the eyes of the Echelon organization. But once things really get moving, not only does Conviser land on solid ground, but he does so without preaching or getting heavy handed. This made the initial skewed perspective even more prevalent to the story.
Truly globetrotting, the settings are varied and interesting, ranging from luxurious wine country, to far east wasteland, to tropical paradise without missing a beat. Reference to adventurous sports abound, including fencing, kayaking and rock climbing scenes. And the technology often takes center stage without stealing the show. Characters are equipped with sonic weapons, lasers, combat suits, railguns etc. Josh has a thing for next generation vehicles too, including hovering "coil bikes", gyroscopic "wheels" that work like supped up Embrios, and even a submarine that can break the sound barrier by traveling within it's own air bubble.
But some of the technology becomes far more than nerd candy or clever plot devices. The nanomachines within Ryan's body are a story element all their own, and a very good one. Conviser paints a unique picture of invasive nanotech, disquieting without being alarmist. The "Flow", which is the virtual reality representation of the collective computer networks of mankind, is much more than window dressing. Indeed, the Flow is the central over riding element of the story, being both the means of Echelon's control, and the proving ground for the worlds future.
In the end, there were two salient points I took away from ECHELON. One is the old debate about security vs. freedom. Something that is now more important than ever. Conviser makes an end run around the choice itself, as to whether we should give up one for the other. Instead, he presents us with a future where the powers that be are more than willing to make that choice for us. The other was the leap that Conviser makes from the old school of cyberpunk. ECHELON demonstrates that the future is about much more than connectivity and information. The real golden apple isn't the machines or the bits inside of them. It's about the dissemination of the information, the aggregation of the data into something useful, or misleading or powerful. We are beginning to leave behind the age of information and move on to the age of relevance and understanding. ECHELON has fun telling us that it just might be a bumpy ride.
Well done Mr. Conviser. As first novels go, you've come through with flying colors. We at Memepunks are already waiting to read the next one. 3.5 Memestars.
"Thousands can see it. If they can't tell millions, it doesn't exist."
"Truth tempered by dissemination" - ECHELON