REVIEW: "Virtually Eliminated", Jefferson Scott
- BKVRTELM.RVW 20000416
"Virtually Eliminated", Jefferson Scott, 1996, 0-88070-885-9, U$9.99
%A Jefferson Scott
%C P. O. Box 1720, Sisters, OR 97759
%I Questar Publishers/Multnomah
%O U$9.99 Fax: 541-549-0260 information@...
%P 333 p.
%T "Virtually Eliminated" (virtu@...)
C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams wrote fantasy that stands with the
best. George MacDonald did amazing stuff in both nuance and range. I
don't think Chesterton and Sayers authored a bad mystery between them.
And there is no reason for a Christian not to be able to deal with
computers: both Pascal and Babbage left writings indicating that their
theological studies contributed to the design of their calculating
But I still cringed when I saw the banner at the top of the book
jacket: "Can one man of faith stop a killer who stalks cyberspace."
Giving credit where credit is due, Scott does recognize that law
enforcement personnel are woefully behind the technological curve in
many ways. He even has a fair idea of why this is so. Unusually, for
a story about erased identity, the author realizes that the truth is
fairly easy to determine by recourse to hardcopy records. I also have
to fully agree that the behaviour of a great many service workers
justifies the assumption that a significant number of them could be
replaced by machines without any loss of humanity.
However, you don't have to read very far through the book to see that
the author has learned most of what he knows about technology from
William Gibson and Steven Levy. A lot of his imagery, some of his
jargon, and even a product or two are lifted from Gibson's works.
Gibson is an excellent writer, but we all know that he wrote his first
four books on a typewriter.
The book is set in the future, a very indeterminate future for about
the first third of the text. The reader tries to reconcile vague
allusions to current popular culture (nothing much seems to have
happened in cultural terms between now and then) plus mentions of the
colonies on Mars and Venus. We eventually find out that we're talking
The plot revolves around the aforementioned killer. He (literally)
fries people with "random power spikes." Now of the various power
problems that can occur; failures, brownouts, over-voltages, surges,
and spikes; spikes are possibly the most corrupting to data, but the
least dangerous to hardware. (And thus, by extension, to users.) The
reason for this is fairly simple. Spikes can reach high voltages.
They can also bypass the protection of fuses and many simple types of
surge protectors. The reason that spikes can get through to flip bits
in memory is that they are transient. Being of such short duration,
they don't have the power to blow fuses. Since they can't even blow
fuses, they certainly wouldn't be able to charbroil a user. (In fact,
modern power supplies deal with spikes rather effectively these days.
But we'll let that go.)
Even if a spike could get through with enough power to do any damage,
the ability to hurt the user would be very hardware dependent. But,
given the virtual reality environment that the book talks about, the
bandwidth requirements would seem to favour fibre optics over copper
wire. (This fact is later confirmed in the book.) Plastic or glass
fibre just does not carry current worth a darn. A surge protector is,
in essence, something like a fuse. If a protector takes a big enough
hit to stop the surge protector from working, the damage breaks the
circuit. Yet a surge protector on a phone line blows and the data
stream continues as if nothing had happened. Given that nobody has
ever been killed by a "random power spike," at least not directly,
having several happen in a year would definitely be noticed. And
finally, if our hero suspects that somebody is sending spikes through
VR gear headsets, why doesn't he back down to viewing through a
terminal? (Or, better yet, stick to the command line. As any techie
knows, GUIs are fun and fast, but to really debug something you have
to go to the raw data.)
It is implied in the book that GlobeNet is bigger and better than the
Internet. However, it seems to be more of a portal than the amalgam
of access, communications channel, and server pool that is the current
Internet. (I rather suspect that Scott has been an AOL user at some
point.) In one scene we are presented with a very clear single point
of failure in the mail system, which is anathema to net design. The
technology is based on gopher, which, even at the time the book was
written, was already fading into obscurity and disuse. Whereas an
AltaVista search will currently return results in seconds, in the more
advanced GlobeNet ten minutes is not sufficient. Utility software can
be used once: nobody keeps or uses copies of it. GlobeNet seems to
lack robustness: if you *could* cut the West Coast off from the rest
of North America, even the current Internet would have no trouble in
re-routing traffic around the world the other way. The lack of
familiarity goes deeper than that, though: our technical genius (who
is bad at logic) ties up the house phone line when he's on the net
(even though almost every household in our future world has more than
one phone line), has no backup access provider, and gets so little
email that he's never seen a threatening message.
What else? Telephone cable room security is more lax in the United
States than it is in other countries, but it would be unusual for a
tech company to have a phone room in the mess described in the book.
GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite constellations are not in
geosynchronous orbit. Cell phones can't call long distance: a few can
call each other without going through the PSTN, but the range is
pretty limited. And, speaking of the Public Switched Telephone
Network, a single cable does not link east and west North America.
Even if it did, how could you cut off California without cutting off
Paranoia about federal government agencies is one thing, but to
believe that the FBI would, with the connivance of local police,
kidnap a nine-year-old boy in order to bait a trap that could just as
easily be laid by anyone with a net hookup is a bit much.
A strong sub-plot in the book is that of net addiction. Anyone who
uses the net for any length of time is drawn deeper and deeper into
its evil embrace, lured into the world of pedophiles and
pornographers, with the line between reality and fantasy blurring
until, eventually and inevitably, the user disappears into the
bitstream. (I suppose I should be happy that at least he admits
Canada is real. The US-centrism that motivates many of the characters
may leave non-American readers a bit bewildered.)
The virtual reality scenarios and imagery have nothing to do with
technology, and so are generally irrelevant, with two exceptions. At
numerous times various characters feel themselves "being watched" by
the killer. While there are a number of ways to explain this
phenomenon in real life, in the computer world it simply wouldn't
arise. Read-only is read-only, and feeling someone breathing down
your bitstream relies on more psychic ability than I'm willing to
credit. The other point relates to security software, and how it is
portrayed. It gets beat up, tied up, blown up, and generally bashed
about, in visual terms. In reality, security software either works or
it doesn't. If it does, it can't get modified, embarrassed, or
mocked. Even if it doesn't work, the clever security breaker
(something of an oxymoron, I'll admit) doesn't waste time and
opportunity by making a big production out of the accomplishment.
And what of the faith? Well, that seems to be pretty irrelevant, too.
Every once in a while somebody prays, but it doesn't seem to be
demonstrably effective. Characterizations are very thin. Women are
weak, ineffectual, and don't like pets. Non-Christians are weak,
stupid, get ... oh, I can hardly bear to say it ... get *divorced*,
and even ... copulate! To accomplish anything the hero has to turn to
anger and idolatry. (Having admitted his idolatry and rejected it, he
returns to the practice, convincing himself that this is God's plan.)
Oh, and if it doesn't involve the Crucifixion, it's a morality play,
not a Passion play.
copyright Robert M. Slade, 2000 BKVRTELM.RVW 20000416
====================== (quote inserted randomly by Pegasus Mailer)
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It's been lovely, but I have to scream now
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