[ISN] Cryptologist faces evil hacker in morality thriller

From: InfoSec News (alerts@private)
Date: Sun Jul 09 2006 - 23:02:50 PDT


Reviewed by Andrew Ervin
July 9, 2006

Turing's Delirium
By Edmundo Paz Soldn; translated by Lisa Carter

[ http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/061854139X/c4iorg   - WK]

By bringing the entire history of cryptography to bear on a story about 
anti-globalism protests and a would-be revolution in Bolivia, "Turing's 
Delirium" combines the excitement of a political thriller with the 
intellectual ambition of a literary novel of ideas. Upon its initial 
publication in 1992, the novel won the Bolivian National Book Award, and 
it now appears in English for the first time, translated by Lisa Carter.

It's the second of Edmundo Paz Soldn's novels to appear in English, after 
"The Matter of Desire." The author is associated with the McOndo literary 
movement, which opposes the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Mrquez and 
his generation (albeit while splashing laudatory blurbs from the likes of 
Mario Vargas Llosa on their book covers). If "Turing's Delirium" provides 
any indication, McOndo rejects the essentializing cliches about Latin 
America and looks instead to the cosmopolitan reality as influenced by 
American popular culture and by globalism in general.

In keeping with his complicated subject, Paz Soldn, now a professor at 
Cornell University, tells his story unconventionally, with chapters 
dedicated to different members of a larger ensemble cast than one might 
typically expect in a book this size. The events of his story unfold 
slowly and sequentially and they occasionally overlap, with the same 
encounter or conversation repeated from different perspectives. It's 
difficult to know whom to believe or even whom to side with for very long.

The closest thing to a protagonist is an aging cryptanalyst named Miguel 
Senz (which is, tellingly, pronounced "signs"). Nicknamed Turing by his 
colleagues, after the English mathematician, Senz works for the mysterious 
Black Chamber, a governmental department dedicated to preventing and 
solving computer crimes. He's an unlikely hero, one whose best days are 
clearly behind him now that he has been demoted to the archives 
department, consigned to an abysmal basement where he is forced to urinate 
into paper cups he keeps in his desk drawer. The chapters focusing on 
Turing are the only ones told in second person:

"You were happy when Montenegro returned to power through democratic 
means; you thought that everything would change under his rule and your 
work would again become urgent. What a disappointment. There was no 
significant threat to national security as there had been during his 
dictatorship. You were forced to admit that times had changed."

Of course the rise of cyber-terrorism keeps the Black Chamber in business 
and provides the foundation for this labyrinthine potboiler. The immense 
pleasure of reading "Turing's Delirium" derives from a carefully 
orchestrated moral ambiguity. No one's hands are clean here, and with the 
exception of the formerly evil dictator Montenegro, it can be tough to 
distinguish the good guys from the bad. Not even the heartless 
Italian-American consortium GlobaLux, which has taken over the operation 
of Ro Fugitivo's electricity grid, is universally reviled.

Montenegro has charged Turing and those at the Black Chamber with the 
difficult task of tracking down the evil mastermind Kandinsky, a renegade 
"cyberhacktivist" bent on overthrowing the government. Kandinsky has been 
inspired by the social upheaval he's seen on television. "In 1999, his 
attention had been held by the enormous protests by anti-globalization 
groups against the WTO in Seattle. Young people from the West were 
protesting against the new world order in which capitalism was the only 
option. If there was discontent in industrialized nations, the situation 
was even worse in Latin America." With his computers, and some irony, 
Kandinsky sets out to use the electric power GlobaLux provides against 
itself. Normally, it would be easy for a reader to invest sympathy in such 
a cause, but some of his methods appear rather questionable, to say the 

Turing's long-suffering wife, Ruth, is equally conflicted. She wants to 
expose the goings-on of the Black Chamber and its complicity with an evil 
regime, but that would mean sacrificing her family for the sake of the 
nation's well-being. Their dreadlocked teen daughter Flavia, a hacker in 
her own right, eventually provides the novel's moral compass. When 
Turing's boss at the Black Chamber gets desperate to track down Kandinsky, 
he turns to Flavia for help. She's a fascinating character, one deserving 
of her own novel or at least more space than she gets in this one.

There's a problem, however, with the book's narrative strategy -- it takes 
Paz Soldn much too long to establish the setting. One must wade through 
approximately 50 pages of background exposition before anything resembling 
a story rears its head. Once past the setup, though, "Turing's Delirium" 
turns into an exciting and rewarding techno-thriller. It reads like a 
Robert Stone novel that has been watered down for the mass-market 
paperback crowd. That is to say, it's an excellent page-turner, perfect 
for a lazy afternoon next to the pool.

Andrew Ervin's story "Yin & Yang," co-written with Ricardo Cortez Cruz, 
will appear in the next issue of Fiction International.

2006 San Francisco Chronicle

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