[extropy-chat] LA Times review: Richard A. Clarke's BREAKPOINT

pjmanney pj at pj-manney.com
Thu Jan 11 03:52:31 UTC 2007

Interesting and amusing review.  The reviewer, Tim Rutten, is the Times' media columnist/commentator.

Richard A. Clarke is the former national security official who went on the record outing the administration's failed efforts re: 9-11.  This book involves transhumanism and cyberwar and Clarke says his fiction "is meant to be predictive."  Rutten takes him to task for using his expertise in both fiction and consulting services and profiting from both.




'Breakpoint' by Richard A. Clarke
Evil-doers target the world's digital nervous system.
By Tim Rutten
Times Staff Writer

January 10, 2007

IT'S hard to know precisely what to make of writers like Richard A. Clarke, which makes his rather tedious new techno-thriller worth a few minutes of rumination.

Clarke, you may recall, is a longtime national security official who served presidents Clinton and George W. Bush as special White House advisor for counter-terrorism. He was in that post on Sept. 11 and subsequently resigned to write a whistle-blowing memoir, "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror," in which he alleged that both the Clinton and Bush administrations had insufficiently heeded warnings about Al Qaeda and other terrorist threats spawned by Islamic fanaticism.

Clarke's 20 hours of testimony to the commission investigating 9/11 were both informative and controversial. Pro-administration and neoconservative critics attacked him for errors of fact and what they characterized as politically partisan analysis. Others hailed his candor, pointing out that he was part of that tiny handful of senior analysts willing to flatly tell a White House bent on attacking Iraq that there was absolutely no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda or the attacks on New York and Washington. It also emerged, however, that he had been less forthcoming about his role in arranging for members of the extended Bin Laden family to leave the United States immediately after 9/11.

What emerged, in other words, was a picture of a senior government official with long service in an arcane but critical field where serious-minded public servants sometimes are right and sometimes are wrong, sometimes are courageous and sometimes are expedient. Clarke followed his memoir with another nonfiction book ("Defeating Jihadists: A Blueprint for Action") and a utilitarian, quasi-roman à clef espionage novel, "The Scorpion's Gate," a bestseller, like the memoir.

So far, so lucrative.

Now we have "Breakpoint," a techno-thriller in the Tom Clancy mode, interlaced with intimations of science fiction. In fact, the narrative, which is set in 2012, is studded with characters who routinely allude to such classic science-fiction authors as Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, as well as to the "Star Wars," "Matrix" and "Star Trek" films. The author has so little writerly control of his characters that it's unclear whether the references are there to establish aesthetic pedigree or to suggest a plausible frame of reference for the people Clarke has created. One suspects the former, since you've probably eaten matzo that wasn't quite as flat or dry as these fictional folks.

The narrative structure will be familiar to early Clancy fans — a multipart setup with quick cinematic cuts between people, times and places noted in the style of cable headers instead of chapter headings. There's a wealth of technical and scientific data standing in for description. As is the convention with this genre, it's balanced by what might be called faux detail. No sooner do we meet the British ambassador to the United States than he pours "a snifter of Napoleon cognac." The cigar-smoking U.S. homeland security chief exhales a cloud of "Cuban smoke." (Apparently the embargo on Cuban tobacco is over.) When the author ventures beyond that sort of technical or superficial detail, things go decidedly south. One of the protagonists, for example, invokes the ideas of the late Jesuit paleontologist and theologian Teilhard de Chardin and gets his key concept of an evolutionary "Omega Point" decidedly wrong.

Essentially, the narrative in "Breakpoint" involves a plot that is apparently intended to disrupt the globe's intricate but delicate web of telephone and Internet connections — the world's digital nervous system, if you will. Suspicion falls on the Chinese, aggressive and upset by U.S. support for Taiwanese independence. There's more to the plot than meets the mind's eye, however, and the story soon is involved with living Internet programs, nanotechnology and efforts to improve the human species through technological intervention in the genome. There are Russian gangsters, religiously conservative opponents of biological research — an ambitious "Sen. Bloviator" — and right-wing militias, jihadis and the U.S. Special Forces.

Navigating among them are Clarke's protagonists: Susan Connor, a young African American intelligence analyst; James Foley, an ex-Marine and New York cop; and "Soxster," their faithful computer hacker — a sort of high-tech Tonto. Their narrative antecedents are those one-of-every-kind of American platoons or ship's crews of which sentimental World War II-era filmmakers were so fond. (For those concerned about such things, there are a number of mildly intricate plot twists and aversions, which this review won't spoil.)

This is worth thinking over if you consider the query Christopher Isherwood posed to his students: "Why are you telling me this? A writer must always be able to answer this question."

This is where Clarke the writer becomes a source of not inconsequential confusion. In the author's note at the end of "Breakpoint," he informs readers that "many of the trends" he identified in his first novel "are dominating the news." He writes that this new fiction "is meant to be predictive." There's a long tradition of predictive speculative fiction concerning topics of great national interest, and it's an entirely honorable one. But those who have availed themselves of it have come to the genre as writers — not as people whose work is marketed to the public as that of a former senior national security official.

That background may provide a certain experience of fiction, but that's something most of us probably would rather not contemplate. Equally troubling is the fact that Clarke, the retired public official, still is in the business of offering serious advice on counter-terrorism. Just last month, for example, he concluded a lengthy essay in the Washington Post thus: "As the president contemplates sending even more U.S. forces into the Iraqi sinkhole, he should consider not only the thousands of fatalities, the tens of thousands of casualties and the hundreds of billions of dollars already lost. He must also weigh the opportunity cost of taking his national security barons off all the other critical problems they should be addressing — problems whose windows of opportunity are slamming shut, unheard over the wail of Baghdad sirens."

Fair enough, but the biographical note at the end of that piece describes Clarke as the chairman of Good Harbor Consulting. That organization's website has a glowing recitation of his credentials and informs visitors that he and his colleagues offer "consulting services in homeland security, cyber security, critical infrastructure and counterterrorism."

Whether "Breakpoint" is, in fact, predictive of the future, it is unquestionably demonstrative of a present in which every aspect of human experience — including the experience and knowledge of life and death gleaned from public service — is simply another commodity, adroitly marketed and sold to the highest bidder.

timothy.rutten at latimes.com

Breakpoint: A Novel

Richard A. Clarke

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