Software industry veteran Durbin’s debut novel captures what happens when technology outstrips the ability of humanity to harness it.
This complex thriller focuses on distributed processing on a large number of coordinated computers—the subject of one of the author’s real-life patents. Philippe Colbert, chief scientist at Distributed Nanotech, is murdered by grad student Alison Green, whose code he’d copied; later, a fellow student said that she hiked alone into the desert. Soon after Colbert’s death, Susanne Anderson, Nanotech’s CEO, hires freelance computer engineer James Forrest to investigate DNI’s Varabot system. While working together, the widowed Susanne and unlucky-in-love James fall for each other. Meanwhile, ineffectual detectives Alberta Lester and Frank Franken are adrift in the California tech industry, which is incomprehensible to them. Also lurking is Alison, who’s determined to erase her program. Susanne finds herself attempting to line up financing while peddling an unproven, and even suspect, system; meanwhile, James works to untangle Alison’s code to understand the artificial intelligence buried inside Varabot. He employs his own Visualizer program to do so, with terrifying results. Durbin takes the reader deep inside a tech startup in this novel, covering both its engineering and financial aspects. He does an admirable job of depicting the industry’s gamesmanship, and this gives the book a feeling of complex authenticity. However, this sometimes results in far too much detail, which bogs down the narrative as a whole. Durbin’s characters are a mixed bag; Susanne and James are well developed and believable, but others are stereotypes—an overreaching sales guy, a greedy venture capitalist—who exist solely as obstacles for Susanne to overcome. Alison, meanwhile, is a familiar mad-genius type who never feels threatening, despite the early murder, and the investigators’ sole role is to come to the rescue in the end.
An intense thriller that’s promising, despite its flaws.