Review: Echelon

Echelon
a novel
by Josh Conviser

InstaRating: 2 out of 5

This book\’s title caught my interest because I keep up with surveillance tech and its social implications, and ECHELON — the alleged US NSA electronic sifting program — is the monster of all surveillance programs. Although I knew this was a spy thriller, I thought there was a chance that it would delve deeply into some of the issues revolving around the invasive new technologies coming online. Alas, it didn’t pan out that way.

More below the fold — warning: Spoilers to come.


The first, not-unpleasant surprise was that the protagonists work for (not-all-caps) Echelon, a self-appointed collection of intelligence experts who have superseded ECHELON, taking it out of the US government’s control, and directed it toward world stability … a stability they’ve enforced for a century, through means both high-tech (subtle manipulation of information flow) and primitive (assassination). Ryan Liang is the best of the best at covert ops, ruthlessly enforcing Echelon’s secret directives in a vain attempt to wipe out chaos. Ryan is driven by the loss of his parents in a great wildfire in Colorado, and he has never overcome the imagery of Nature run amok.

Oh, and he dies in the first chapter — a somewhat unusual development for the main hero of a spy novel.

It comes in the form of a fall from a cliff face; Ryan is an obsessive and expert rock climber and was trying to work through some conflicting emotions after killing a computer company CEO at Echelon’s command. It’s not made clear why this particular murder hits him so hard or why the expert climber fell… at least not at first.

Rest assured, his death is temporary. He is injected with experimental nanotechnology “drones” on the orders of the head of Echelon, a guy named Turing (aside: Yes, Conviser has the gumption or the hubris or the cluelessness to name the head of his super-hi-tech encryption collective “Turing”. I can’t tell if he was intentionally paying homage to Alan Turing or if he’s being cutesy or if he didn’t even notice.) The drones, though a riot of input and noise, do repair his body and return him to the land of the living.

After recovering (including learning to control the drones via the voice of his manager, Sarah Peters, Ryan goes back into the field. His advanced abilities are being used mostly for surveillance now but he longs for the Action. So he ignores a direct order, moves against a pirate “data haven”, and discovers something he wasn’t supposed to see. Oh, along the way, he gets himself killed again.

This time when he awakes he is grilled by Sachs, head of internal security at Echelon. Sachs says that there’s a vast conspiracy to uproot Echelon and take control, led by none other than Turing. Ryan doesn’t think ask how this even makes sense, since Turing is already in undisputed control of Echelon. Sachs recruits Ryan to keep his eyes open to discover the truth.

Meanwhile someone has murdered Sarah’s band partner (oh, yeah, when she’s not “in the flow”, she plays bass guitar in a neo-punk group) while trying to get Sarah herself. She is saved at the proverbial last moment by none other than Turing.

Then someone ambushes Ryan in his dilapidated old LA apartment, and after all the dust settles, Sachs arrests Turing (just as Ryan figures out, at last, that Turing isn’t the traitor). But a-ha! Turing has encrypted “the Key”, the algorithm that gives Echelon access to all electronic data. “The Key” just appeared one day nearly a century ago, a quantum leap forward in encryption/decryption that allowed ECHELON’s original NSA workers to launch their stealthy coup. Without the Key, Echelon is nearly powerless. Immediately the world starts to slip into chaos. It just could be The End of the World.

Hilarity ensues.

Well, no, not really. What does ensue is a run-of-the-mill thriller with obligatory sci fi motiffs. Ryan’s “drones” give him near-invincibility (except when they inexplicably fail to). Sarah is a net-hacking genius who can’t seem to trace anything. She does get her own “field moment” in a goofy sequence in the Arctic, where she recovers the last surviving hard disk of the listening post that first discovered and transmitted “the Key”.

Long before she figures it out, it’s painfully obvious that “the Key” is a viral meme sent by radio from Out There, allegedly to prepare the human race for conquest by some alien species (which, mercifully, makes no actual appearance in the book). Sachs is redundantly revealed to be the traitor (along with a computer industrialist whose complicity is obvious on the first page we meet him). Sachs injects himself with even more of the drones in a quest to transcend and become the Lawnmower Man. Oh, wrong book, but it’s the same idea.

Together Ryan and Sarah manage, at the last moment, to take Sachs down, re-initialize Echelon, destroy the viral key, kill the other traitor, and get reborn as near-godlike. Oh, and fall in love (of course). Almost all of that happens in the last five pages of the book. It’s almost painful to consider how much this reads like a storyboard for a movie. Clearly Conviser hopes someone in Hollywood reads the book and makes him a multimillion dollar offer.

It might actually be tolerable as a two-hour live-action Matrix-esque throw-away. As a book it was Not Good. Mildly diverting, it doesn’t really reward the time spent reading it. It throws a few Big Ideas into the air but, too distracted by hackneyed convention and safe action-thriller idioms, it fails to catch any of the Big Ideas before they splatter onto the ground and make a mess.

Major peeve: Oh, my goodness, it seems like Conviser just now learned the meaning of the word “subsumed”. It pops up every twenty pages or so, then really ratchets up in the final chapters. I counted eight uses within the last five pages alone!

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