Perhaps this book, which reads almost like a parody of Clancy's hammer-it-home literary style, was actually written by someone else. If so, who wrote it? FBI chief Louis Freeh? Some nameless spook at the NSA?
In the best Clancy tradition, I decided to do a little investigating of my own. I began by calling the publicity office at Ruthless.com's publisher, Berkley Books. I told the woman I spoke to that I wanted to interview the author of the book - "whoever it is; I guess I know it's not Mr. Clancy" - about the sources and inspiration for the novel. Seeming a bit flustered, she told me that she couldn't help me then - "it's late in the day," she said - but she'd have a publicist call me the next day. But no publicist ever contacted me, and when I called again a few days later, I was told that the publicist for the book was "unavailable." No clue as to when that situation would change.
So I tried a different tack. I called up the secretary for Robert Gottlieb, a literary agent at William Morris who's thanked in the book's (unsigned) acknowledgments. When I asked her for contact information for "co-creator" Martin Greenberg, I ended up being transferred to Greenberg himself. This was so sudden that it caught me flatfooted, but I was still able to nervously frame a question to Greenberg about the inspiration for the book's encryption theme. Greenberg was even more nervous than I was. He said that, although he's a former political science professor, he wasn't too knowledgeable about technical issues, and that I'd be better off talking to someone at Red Storm Entertainment, the company responsible for the game version of Ruthless.com.
"Don't worry about the technical stuff," I told Greenberg. "I know that well enough. What I really want to talk about is the genesis of the idea for the book."
But Greenberg was afraid to say anything on the record. He explained that he was nervous when it came to talking about the book because he was bound by confidentiality agreements and didn't want to accidentally violate one. "Agreements involving Red Storm Entertainment?" I asked. "Or Clancy?"
"Agreements involving everyone," he said mysteriously.
And with that he referred me to Kevin Perry, a game designer at Red Storm Entertainment, who was a little more forthcoming. Perry emphasized - perhaps a bit too strongly - that there was "no political purpose" to the novel, which had been written at the same time the game was developed. The anti-encryption stance was a function of plot requirements, he said.
That argument is a bit loose, but then so is Ruthless.com's plot: It consists of a disconnected series of Clancyesque scenes, mostly involving a techno-industrialist named Roger Gordian and his arch-rival, Marcus Caine, who's a cross between Bill Gates and Lex Luthor but lacking the brainpower of either. Caine strives to acquire Gordian's company in order to sell Gordian's encryption technology to foreign powers (Gordian, despite his super-capitalist status, refuses to export his crypto products because, uh, this will make them
less secure). There's also a kidnapping/murder subplot set in Southeast Asia that doesn't have much to do with advancing the main plot.
Perry, who designed a previous Red Storm game called Politika (which also features Gordian and which also led to a Clancy-labeled book), says the anti-crypto-export theme was just a way making Gordian a maverick hero in the Clancy vein. When the book and game were crafted, says Perry, the idea was to anticipate what hot, upcoming issues might "seed" a game and a book that would be a "cross of software, national security, and techno-thrillers." With Politika, the seed was the frequent illness of Boris Yeltsin and the political chaos that might follow his sudden death; with Ruthless.com, Perry explained, the seed was partly the Microsoft antitrust case (Marcus Caine's company, Monolith, is an operating-system giant) and partly the ongoing debate about encryption policy.
Perry's explanations - especially his disarming admission that the plot's logic is "tortured" - kicked me out of my Clancyworld musings about a plot to use the author's street cred to mislead the American public about encryption policy. Indeed, the sheer opportunism of pegging the book and game on encryption policy because it's likely to be a hot issue does much to explain both the un-Clancy-like looseness of the plot and the equally atypical sloppiness regarding technical details.
There is, for instance, a tacked-on climax that involves terrorists robbing a center where the government stores encryption access codes. Ironically, it's the soidisant anti-terrorist forces in the encryption debate that have been arguing for the creation of such "key escrow" facilities, so that the government can retrieve your key and do a wiretap when it wants to. Yet only if the government's "key escrow" schemes become standard operating procedure will our country and our codes become vulnerable in the way the novel describes them here.
Without disputing that game designers may sometimes facilitate the creation of fictions, that's clearly not the case here. Ruthless. com, considered solely as an exercise in fiction writing, comes across just the way you would expect a novel conceived by a team of programmers and hack writers to come across. Where the real Clancy orchestrates the plot elements in his military thrillers down to the finest detail - indeed, that's why he's popular - his emulators in Ruthless.com are playing little more than a series of disconnected rifts on the established Clancy themes.
To their credit, though, the Ruthless. com team does have it right that encryption policy is a hot issue - and likely to remain one, as governments everywhere grapple with the prospect of losing the ability to snoop into citizens' private communications and data at will. But although the United States has pressured its trading partners over the last decade to suppress powerful private encryption tools, the international momentum is shifting in favor of individual rights.
Even France, which traditionally has denied private citizens the right to encrypt their data, has recently backed down. Still, the long-term success of the pro-encryption movement depends on educating a public that, as yet, is mostly uninformed about encryption policy.
Which is why Ruthless.com still bugs me: It would be a shame if the growing pro-encryption policy consensus were undercut just because Tom Clancy lent his name to a bad book.
Mike Godwin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the author of Cyberrights: Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age (Times Books).
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||May 1, 1999|
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