Echelon: A novel
by Josh Conviser
Review by Ernest Lilley
Del Rey Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0345485025
Date: 18 July, 2006 List Price $13.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Echelon is a secret organization that spun off from the NSA (though the NSA doesn't know that) after no such agency got hold of an encryption key that could break any data stream in real time. To translate, that means that big brother is watching everything, everywhere, 24/7, and what Echelon doesn't like seeing never gets seen. Acting as a global censor to defuse tensions and maintain the status quo, it's operating as a shadow world government, but the world is at peace and you don't have to take your shoes off to go through airport security. At least I assume you don't.
Echelon doesn't just meddle with data flow, they regularly send agents out to kill off inventors who have come up with ideas and inventions that might destabilize the status quo. That tech goes into Echelon's coffers for the greater good, by the way. While all this seems pretty heavily slanted towards a repressive regime, it doesn't start out looking so bad, at least for the sheep. Then things start to unravel when Charles Turing, the head of Echelon himself, takes the encryption key and disappears. Soon those happy sheep are looking up and not getting fed, or at least their info-diet is no longer being strained for them. In not too short order, class struggles and old animosities ignite and the world heads towards meltdown.
Ryan finds himself out in the cold when his mentor convinces him that something is very rotten in Echelon's ranks, and the code has to be kept away from his heir apparent, Jason Sachs, the power hungry inspector general whose ambition exceeds his concern for humanity. When Turing dies under torture, though it's a bit more complicated than that, Ryan takes off on a search for the origin code that created the key decades before. What he finds, along with the help of a few stalwart companions, including a sexy analyst, geeky "Q" clone, and a smuggler buddy, is evidence that the NSA had caught the code at a deep space listening station, and that in essence it's an alien computer virus.
Along the way, and hotly pursued by Sachs, Ryan's team runs into a group that's trying to keep Echelon from restarting, maintaining that the unnatural state of peace it offers mankind is really, really bad for us. And makes us easy galactic pickings while it's at it.
So our boy has his hands full trying to recompile the source code for Echelon, stay alive long enough (at a time) to do something with it, and figure out whether humanity is ready for peace anyway. Just to keep him occupied, the nano "drones" inhabit his system are turning him into something inhuman, or at least not himself, and the repeated cycles of loss in his life are playing havoc with his will to live. He's a perfect candidate for Sarah, the analyst, to fall in love with, though he's not all that safe to be around.
The good news is that Echelon is a fairly comfortable read for fans of punk sf, but there's not a whole lot new that it brings to the table. Yes, the question of whether or not a contrived mono-cultural peace is a good thing is topical, and yes, it's a question worth dragging out periodically and dusting off, but except for the reiteration of "absolute power corrupts absolutely" we don't get any really useful insights. I'm not convinced that we should run the world to maximize our safety from alien invasion…the immediate danger to ourselves being much more clear and present, as Pogo reminds us.
Echelon combines elements from lots of popular SF into a stew that's more or less original, but not nearly as inspired as it might have been a decade or three ago. In one book the author manages to encompass pretty much William Gibson's entire Neuromancer – Count Zero sequence, while riffing heavily on Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash. The only element not present in either is the nanotech and biowarfare stuff, but they operate only to make the characters less nuanced and less believable. Further back, in genre history, you come to the Six Million Dollar Man, which Ryan resembles from time to time...or even Gerry Anderson's invulnerable puppet, Captain Scarlet, The idea of in information virus from outer space has certainly been done, though it's really a new take on that SF Classic, The Andromeda Strain.
Unfortunately, the punk message has reached the point, where like Star Trek, it's gone to the well too many times. That corruption is a singular evil isn't news to anyone, and while blind faith in the greater good is laughingly naïve, we're still faced with the need to provide for it. Abdicating responsibility for the future isn't taking the high road, as the victims of the slaughter in this book would no doubt agree, or those in the ongoing ethnic purges in the real world.
What does all this mean to the reader? If you're just discovering SF, this will be full of great ideas and Bond level action. That's good, and you'll probably enjoy the heck out of it. If on the other hand you've been reading SF since the time before Star Wars, you'll find that it's fun, but nothing you haven't seen before.