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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reading List: Net Force

Clancy, Tom and Steve Pieczenik. Net Force. New York: Berkley, 1999. ISBN 978-0-425-16172-2.
One of the riskiest of marketing strategies is that of “brand expansion”: you have a hugely successful product whose brand name is near-universally known and conveys an image of quality, customer satisfaction, and market leadership. But there's a problem—the very success of the brand has led to its saturating the market, either by commanding a dominant market share or inability to produce additional volume. A vendor in such a position may opt to try to “expand” the brand, leveraging its name recognition by applying it to other products, for example a budget line aimed at less well-heeled customers, a line of products related to the original (Watermelon-Mango Coke), or a completely unrelated product (Volvo dog food). This sometimes works, and works well, but more often it fails at a great cost not only to the new product (but then a large majority of all new products fail, including those of the largest companies with the most extensive market research capabilities), but also to the value of the original brand. If a brand which has become almost synonymous with its project category (Coke, Xerox, Band-Aid) becomes seen as a marketing gimmick cynically applied to induce consumers to buy products which have not earned and are not worthy of the reputation of the original brand, both the value of that brand and the estimation of its owner fall in eyes of potential customers.

Tom Clancy, who in the 1980s and 1990s was the undisputed master of the techno/political/military thriller embarked upon his own program of brand expansion, lending his name to several series of books and video games written by others and marketed under his name, leading the naïve reader to believe they were Clancy's work or at least done under his supervision and comparable to the standard of his own fiction. For example, the present book, first in the “Net Force” series, bears the complete title Tom Clancy's Net Force, an above-the-title blurb, “From the #1 New York Times Bestselling Author”, and the byline, “Created by Tom Clancy and Steve Pieczenik”. “Created”, eh…but who actually, you know, wrote the book? Well, that would be a gentleman named Steve Perry, whose name appears in the Acknowledgments in the sentence, “We'd like to thank Steve Perry for his creative ideas and his invaluable contributions to the preparation of the manuscript.”. Well yes, I suppose writing it is, indeed, an invaluable contribution to the preparation of a manuscript!

Regardless of how a novel is branded, marketed, or produced, however, the measure of its merit is what's between the covers. So how does this book measure up to the standard of Clancy's own work? I bought this book when it first came out in 1999 as an “airplane book”, but never got around to reading it. I was aware of the nature of this book at the time, having read one of the similarly-produced “Op-Center” novels, so my expectations were not high, but then neither is the level of cognition I expect to devote to a book read on an airplane, even in the pre-2001 era when air travel was not the Hell of torture, extortion, and humiliation it has become today. Anyway, I read something else on that long-forgotten trip, and the present book sat on my shelf slowly yellowing around the edges until I was about to depart on a trip in June 2009. Whilst looking for an airplane book for this trip, I happened across it and, noting that it had been published almost exactly ten years before, was set in the year 2010, and focused upon the evolution of the Internet and human-computer interaction, I thought it would be amusing to compare the vision of Clancy et alii for the next decade to the actual world in which we're living.

Well, I read it—the whole thing, in fact, on the outbound leg of what was supposed to be a short trip—you know you're having a really bad airline experience when due to thunderstorms and fog you end up in a different country than one on the ticket. My reaction? From the perspective of the present day, this is a very silly, stupid, and poorly written novel. But the greater problem is that from the perspective of 1999 this is a very silly, stupid, and poorly written novel. The technology of the 2010 in the story is not only grossly different from what we have at present, it doesn't make any sense at all to anybody with the most rudimentary knowledge of how computers, the Internet, or for that matter human beings behave. It's as if the author(s) had some kind of half-baked idea of “cyberspace” as conceived by William Gibson and mixed it up with a too-literal interpretation of the phrase “information superhighway”, ending up with car and motorcycle chases where virtual vehicles are careening down the fibrebahn dodging lumbering 18-wheeled packets of bulk data. I'm not making this up—the author(s) are (p. 247), and asking you to believe it!

The need for suspension of disbelief is not suspended from the first page to the last, and the price seems to ratchet up with every chapter. At the outset, we are asked to believe that by “gearing up” with a holographic VR (virtual reality) visor, an individual not only sees three dimensional real time imagery with the full fidelity of human vision, but also experiences touch, temperature, humidity, smell, and acceleration. Now how precisely does that work, particularly the last which appears to be at variance with some work by Professor Einstein? Oh, and this VR gear is available at an affordable price to all computer users, including high school kids in their bedrooms, and individuals can easily create their own virtual reality environments with some simple programming. There is techno-babble enough here for another dozen seasons of “24”. On p. 349, in the 38th of 40 chapters, and completely unrelated to the plot, we learn “The systems were also ugly-looking—lean-mean-GI-green—but when it came to this kind of hardware, pretty was as pretty did. These were state-of-the-art 900 MHz machines, with the new FireEye bioneuro chips, massive amounts of fiberlight memory, and fourteen hours of active battery power if the local plugs didn't work.” 900 Mhz—imagine! (There are many even more egregious examples, but I'll leave it at this in the interest of brevity and so as not to induce nausea.)

But that's not all! Teenage super-hackers, naturally, speak in their own dialect, like (p. 140):

“Hey, Jimmy Joe. How's the flow?”
“Dee eff eff, Tyrone.” This stood for DFF—data flowin' fine.
“Listen, I talked to Jay Gee. He needs our help.”
“Nopraw,” Tyrone said. “Somebody is poppin' strands.”
“Tell me somethin' I don't compro, bro. Somebody is always poppin' strands.”
“Yeah, affirm, but this is different. There's a C-1 grammer [sic] looking to rass the whole web.”

If you want to warm up your suspension of disbelief to take on this twaddle, imagine Tom Clancy voluntarily lending his name and reputation to it. And, hey, if you like this kind of stuff, there are nine more books in the series to read!

Posted at June 17, 2009 02:16