I love to be taken completely by surprise by a book. I had never heard of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, when it caught my eye in my local library. It’s a book that, in the UK at least, seems to have been criminally overlooked. Unsure of what I might find beneath its arresting cover, I started the book with few expectations. I was delighted to discover an amusing, off-beat, and well-told thriller. I loved every page of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot from first to last. It’s pure geek manna.
I found WTF to be a less irritating riff on Dave Eggers one-dimensional polemic ‘The Circle‘. I’ve read a few “Pitfalls of Social Media” novels and I think WTF sits at the top of the pile.
The story draws three disparate characters together as they become entangled in a web of international corporate espionage. There is a plot to gain a stranglehold on the entire globe’s digital information, and the three are recruited by a shadowy counter-culture group to thwart the might of big business.
The foe they are up against is an unholy marriage of an Internet Goliath with a private military company. WTF contains the inevitable ruminations about the power of mercenary outfits and the perils of allowing social media companies unfettered access to your data. Many of the traps outlined are but small extrapolations of existing, much touted, features offered by Facebook and Google.
Much of the novel’s humour is derived from the arch depiction of “SineCo”, a company that is the conglomeration of just about every huge technology outfit you can name. With its “Node” SineCo aims to revolutionise the way we control our lives, and in the process gain complete control of the way we control our lives.
The book derives its richness from its central characters; three flawed individuals given over to introspection. They pretty much fumble their way through the plot analysing the way the world works as they go along. David Shafer’s distilling of the absurdities of modern life is entertaining and he has a keen eye for detail which, combined with a dry turn of phrase, kept me hooked throughout.
There is some carping on the internet that the book is far-fetched (true) and that the ending is ambiguous (also true). Neither of these things mattered for me. The story is in essence a vehicle for carrying ideas and suggesting caution in the way we handle our digital lives. The ending is abrupt, and might have you exclaiming and searching for extra pages. You could argue there’s a clue to the sudden end in the novel’s title. I liked the ending, and found it in keeping with the rest of the novel.
With its immersive look at the culture of technology and spy-craft Whiskey Tango Foxtrot should appeal to the geek in us all. There are lots of little hooks of information that require further investigation. On the back of a throwaway observation by a minor character, I spent an invigorating half hour, trying to understand what a Markov number is. It’s that sort of book.
I thoroughly enjoyed WTF. It’s testament to the power of good storytelling and the importance of the existence of libraries, without which I may never have discovered this entertaining gem of a novel.
If you enjoyed Whiskey Tango Foxtrot , here are a few books in the same vein,
Fishbowl by Matthew Glass. In which an Ivy League geek invents the perfect social media program and wrestles with accumulating profit over perfecting his users’ experience.
No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe. The life of a presidential candidate is derailed when a popular social media programme predicts he will hold a gun to his own family.
Glaze by Kim Curran. A Young Adult novel on the perils of giving too much of yourself away.
The Circle by Dave Eggers. Social Media is baaad M’Kay.
The Word Exchange by Aleana Graedon. Over reliance on smart phones and social media threatens to destroy the art of communication.