This review first appeared on GeekDad on 14/9/2015
I love to be taken completely by surprise by a book. I’d never heard of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, when its arresting cover caught my eye as I browsed in my local library. It’s a book that, in the UK at least, seems to have been criminally overlooked. I loved every page of it, from first to last. It’s pure geek manna.
At its heart, I found Whiskey Tango Foxtrot 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 try 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 and the book 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 Sine, a company that is the conglomeration of just about every huge technology outfit you can name. With their “node” they hope to revolutionise the way we control our lives, and in the process they aim to 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 and a dry turn of phrase that 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, but you could say there’s a clue is in the novel’s title. I liked the ending, and found it in keeping with the rest of the novel. You should be pretty sure how things are going to play out after the novel’s end, but you’re left with a nagging doubt that perhaps it didn’t. That feeling I found refreshing.
With its immersive look at the culture of technology and spy-craft Whiskey Foxtrot Tango should appeal to the geek in us all. There are lots of little hooks of information that require further investigation. I spend an invigorating half hour, trying to understand what a Markov number is on the back of a throwaway observation by a minor character. It’s that sort of book. I thoroughly enjoyed WFT. 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 Foxtrot Tango, here are a few books in the same vein,
Fishbowl by Matthew Glass. In which Ivy League geek invents the perfect social media program and wrestles with profit over perfection.
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 YA 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 social media and phones for information threatens to destroy the art of written communication.