Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Cyberstorm: A Review

Matthew Mather's Cyberstorm (Amazon, Amazon.UK)is an apocalypse-in-progress set in Chelsea, a residential enclave in lower Manhattan (NYC).  The cause of the collapse is a massive winter blizzard, and a modern version of indirect warfare, the type of warfare that weak nations use to keep stronger opponents at bay.  The French used to call it guerre de course (war of the chase) with their commerce raiders, today it takes the form of digital warfare on your opponent's infrastructure, with some germ warfare, drone attacks, and what-not thrown in for good measure.  In this novel, we get the worms eye view from citizens suffering its effects.

Matthew Mather is author of the six-part Atopia Chronicles (40k copies sold as an independent).  His day job has included a variety of high tech start ups (example). He lives with his girlfriend, Julie,  in Montreal, with their three dogs and a cat, and now travels back and forth to Charlotte, NC.  I couldn't figure out if their four legged friends travel back and forth with them. A white paper of his on the merger of space and cyberspace as the new high ground in the next war is here.

The novel surprised me.  It is getting a lot of justifiable attention from within the sci-fi community, but until the shoehorned ending, does not read like science fiction novel.  The characters are relatively normal people going about the Lower Manhattan version of their everyday lives.  In Manhattan, this means you have people living in really really expensive little one-room studio, or just slightly larger apartments,  that are very expensive.  Our hero, Mitchell, like the author, is a serial entrepreneur.  His wife, a lawyer, left the work force to stay home a couple years with their new baby.  Their good friends, Chuck and Susie from Virginia, live across the hall, and have an even younger little baby of their own.  Chuck is the paranoid survivalist of the group.  An elderly Russian couple, survivors of the WW2 Siege of Leningrad (I have met the type) live next door and will help with watching the little one from time to time. And the cast of interesting and plausible characters goes on.

Through conversations with Chuck we get a fair amount of background on the delicacies of the modern world's web-based infrastructure. To illustrate the problem (and getting a little off tangent with the review) we have a couple of links (hat tip to Early Warning).  One shows What Happened When One Man Pinged the Whole Internet and mapped out the location point of all the business and industrial locations that allow remote access to anyone with a connection.

Which would be the precursor to taking them down with a Flash Worm (pdf) . Per the abstract:
Flash worms follow a pre-computed spread tree using prior knowledge of all systems vulnerable to the worm’s exploit. In previous work we suggested that a flash worm could saturate one million vulnerable hosts on the Internet in under 30 seconds. We grossly over-estimated.
A lot of those systems are the heating/air-conditioning systems of modern buildings.  Granted, that it while it is difficult finding controls contractors who can actually get all the different manufacturers equipment to work together, it presumably is easier just to turn everything off through a backdoor.  In the novel, because of the arctic blast of weather, there is a running joke that the Canadians are at fault:  Maybe, as we noted in an earlier post:
A Canadian company that makes equipment and software for critical industrial control systems planted a backdoor login account in its flagship operating system, according to a security researcher, potentially allowing attackers to access the devices online. 
The primary reason for the backdoor is so people can access their equipment when they loose their password, or lockup the software.  They don't want to pay for a technician to fly out and physically reset it, so they set it up so they can do it remotely.  It is a little like when you loose cable service, and the company checks/and resets your cable modem remotely.  It is a great feature, but has some Black Swan potential.

Anyway, back to the book.  I thought a book by a techie, would have all sorts of detailed interactions with these systems as the techie races against time to save the day.  Something like the typical thriller "hero averts apocalypse" type novel, with maybe a little bit of gloom and doom to keep it moving along.  That is not what we have.

What we have is, time wise, a pretty quick breakdown in New York City.  Power goes down, water runs out.   Communications except some radio stations start winding down as the stations run out of fuel for their generators.  The authorities keep promising to get power back on but pretty quickly, nobody believes them.  The device of the huge series of blizzards takes the place of the road blocks and what-not that occur in your militia-style collapse to keep people in place.  Because it generally takes some money (rent control not withstanding), or at least some cash flow to live in this section of Manhattan, you need the blizzard to keep everyone from running off to their weekend home in Connecticut. It works to keep the group intact, and to give some blow by blow details of bad things happening.  It makes for some additional adventure as we get an escape from New York meme floating out there.

At first, people work together pretty well.  Some cash quickly spent, some minor league looting, and some prepping, and the fact that most of the residents are gone for the holidays, keeps the building a reasonably happy place.  They can steal gasoline from snow buried cars, and heating oil diesel for generator fuel.  There are occasional issues with some serious bad guys.  The local hospital's generator breaks down, and many in the building go to help them move patients (by pushing gurneys down the icy streets) to alternate locations: which gives them valuable New York Police contacts.  Some of the police go home, but enough of everyone sticks around to keep the city from turning into complete mayhem right away.  Because we have techies here, they even manage to develop an ad hoc point-to-point phone system that helps revive some communication issues.

But about half-way through the novel (Day 11 - January 2) our folks in the building start running out of food.  One item that frustrates me with the more realistic novels, is that regardless of the starting point, our main characters are always the people that find the preppers cache, or luck into some other source of food.  They may get hungry, but they aren't really desperate.  In this one, by Day 28, some of the frozen dead bodies are missing.  People are sucking down stored red cross blood plasma.  And these are the some of the good guys.

Now for the bad part (and you may skip the next two paragraphs if you don't want teasers)  The book's ending falls apart badly.  There are two common endings to these types of stories. One is the cozy, which has society collapse, but the remnants build a more rustic, self-reliant, semi-utopia in its wake.  The other is to have an almost magical recovery back to normalcy.  There is some discussion about how we will be wiser, and some sadness over the losses along the way, but we can go back to eating, at least a high fiber, low calorie version of our Big Mac.  The first type of ending, the cozy, whatever its plausibility, at the storytelling level can usually be made to work: the second rarely does.  If it does work, it is because it is tacked on at the end almost as a beside-the-point epilogue.

Here we have an extend back to normalcy, that makes the additional sin of wasting much of our time improbably force feeding the novel as a prequel to his previously released Autopia Chronicles. The ending not only ends in sweetness, but actually undoes much of the earlier noted disaster series.  I am guessing the author thought it was a clever plot twist, but it makes the main characters look like idiots, and as a reader, you come to feel that you have been both mislead and wasted a fair amount of time.  That the premises of the whole plot-twist toward recovery is rather improbable doesn't help.  If the stew pot in the living room with bones sticking out was too over the top in one direction, the recovery twist doubles the return favor in the opposite direction.  My guess is that he was trying to make it something of an anti-militia novel.  I am not opposed to poking fun at militia scenarios, I have enjoyed doing it myself at times, but the attempt is not successful here.

Did I like it?  I think the first portions of the book are worthwhile because they actually go through step by step plausible timeline for an urban collapse.  At the national level, any aid from a still standing government, will go to the major cities first.  But at the same time, the shear size of the task makes a hand-out/bread line method of distribution daunting.  So with some caveats as noted above, I did like the novel: just not as much as I might have.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism is fairly straightforward.  The story is set in the here and now.  They have infants, pregnant mothers, sympathetic strangers, less sympathetic neighbors, and dangerous criminals to deal with.  A novel where people are starving and dreaming about food is generally a pretty realistic one.  It is a 7.
Readability is also straightforward.  With most of the action moving along at a day by day pacing, you probably aren't going to get a page turner unless its the type of novel that features retired Navy SEALS.  With the exception of the last few chapters, which are out of step with the main plot line, it moves along fairly well, and there isn't any magical realism, or deep symbolism to distract from the story line.  With a deduct for the slow pacing caused by the day to day chronology, it is a 5.

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