One involves a Nigerian e-mail scam, while the other delves into the relationship between the physical and virtual worlds.
January 1, 2013
Several years ago in this space I recommended Cory Doctorow’s novel, “Little Brother.” This time out, I am adding two more thought-provoking novels whose plots are also driven by Information and Communications Technology (ICT).
“Dear Sir, I am the daughter of a Nigerian diplomat, and I need your help…” We have all received e-mails like this, promising the reader a cut of an enormous sum for helping to transfer the money out of Nigeria. These e-mail scams are a form of advance fee fraud, in which the perpetrator attempts to secure money from the victim in order to cover various bogus fees and permits. And they are so prevalent that Nigeria’s criminal code has its own article — Article 419 — to deal with them.
If we give any thought at all to e-mail scams, those of us who are experienced users of ICT wonder how anybody could be to gullible as to fall for one of these. “419” — the 2012 Giller Prize winner from Canadian author Will Ferguson — is a good reminder that not everybody is as comfortable with technology and it does not take many gullible people to make the attempt worthwhile.
In the book, a Canadian woman travels to Nigeria to try to avenge the death of her father who was the victim of an e-mail swindle. She hopes to confront the person who cheated her father in order to show him, first-hand, the damage he caused. And she hopes to recover the money for her mother, who faces the possibility of losing the family home.
While all of the characters are interesting, what I found most illuminating about “419” was Ferguson’s depiction of the young, net-savvy Nigerians who weave their tales in the cyber cafés of Lagos. There is real admiration in this book for the talent of these storytellers. Having read “419”, I wonder how Nigeria could harness this considerable talent to create ICT innovation that is constructive rather than destructive.
Cyber cafés also play an important role in “Reamde,” Neal Stephenson’s wild ride of an adventure novel in which the creator of a hugely popular online roleplaying game — bigger, by far, than World of Warcraft — gets caught up in an extortion scheme.
A virus is loose on the Internet, one that encrypts a person’s files and holds them for ransom with the ransom payment to be made within the online game. When the wrong person’s files are hijacked, the game becomes high stakes and very deadly.
Stephenson’s tale spans the globe and expertly weaves together numerous threads including the war on terror, mobsters, social media, computer hacking and religious fundamentalism.
Beyond being a great read, “Reamde” delves into the relationship between the physical and virtual worlds. While not related at all to his earlier works, it continues the exploration of this theme that Stephenson tackled in 1992’s “Snow Crash” and 1999’s “Cryptonomicon.”
If you are planning a mid-winter getaway and you are looking for some beach reading, you cannot go wrong with “419.”
For a serious mental holiday, “Reamde” will have you putting the rest of the world on hold until you turn the final page.
On second thought, you might as well skip the beach because you won’t even notice it’s there. CNS
Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian technology sector. He can be reached (on his mobile, when he’s not reading) at 416-878-7730 or at email@example.com.