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by Dan Ronco

(Winterwolf Publishing, $15.49, 280 pages, ISBN 0-97527-114-8.)

Review by Stuart Carter

Having read Dan Ronco's PeaceMaker I've come to the conclusion that geeks and guns cover scandon't really mix. They're like oil and water -- geeks (computer geeks, to be specific) aren't easily imaginable as action heroes or gun-toting ruthless killers. Try it yourself: stop reading this review and try to imagine Bill Gates packin' a piece. No? What about Steve Jobs carrying heat and looking like a badass?

They're both fierce opponents in the software arena, probably also in business, and you can imagine them bringing the house down with some devastating share options or an ornery computer virus -- which, coincidentally, is, ahem, a bit like the central premise behind PeaceMaker, in which the chief executive of VantagePoint Software, maker of Atlas, the world's most popular computer operating system, has hidden a devastating computer virus in every single copy sold. To further stretch the coincidence, VantagePoint Software has been broken up into smaller companies following some federal anti-trust trials and, would you believe it, Atlas's main competitor, Goldman Information Systems, has produced an OS called Companion (and which is actually a better piece of software) but is inexorably being driven out of business by some fairly sharp practice on VantagePoint's part.

The PeaceMaker of the title is the virus hidden in the software, the main part of a SMERSH-esque plan for world domination by The Domain, a secret and deadly organisation (essentially it's the board of VantagePoint Software). When Ray Brown, a recovering alcoholic and Vantage Point's chief software engineer (at least, the chief visible software engineer), begins to discover some odd code hidden in Atlas things rapidly spiral out of control and global disaster looms.

Joe Massucci notes on the back cover, it's 'For computer geeks and Tom Clancy reader alike'. Only ... well, it isn't really, because some of the computer science seems aimed at my mum (computer viruses that can electrocute people through the monitor? AIs taking over a young boy's body??). Similarly, although the action sequences aren't at all badly done there are plenty of writers around who do it better, so these two plots seem to compromise rather than support each other. It feels as though Ronco is trying to cater for two separate markets at once -- two markets that aren't necessarily very compatible -- and in doing so just fails to catch either of them.

PeaceMaker is constructed fairly cleverly because we know right from the very start that a global computer crash is coming; what we don't know is why or how or quite when it happens. For the first third or so of the book this is a genuinely gripping read as the excellent central idea is revealed and the potential for disaster is made shockingly clear. This is the bit with -- and mainly for -- the geeks. It's when the guns are introduced and people start to die horribly that things begin to fall apart. If Ronco had kept this as a more cerebral novel of 'netwar' then I have little doubt that PeaceMaker would have been an unusual and top-notch thriller, but unfortunately our programmer hero decides he has to take on the always rather implausible Domain rather than going to the police or intelligence services. Shadowy organisations battle it out, secret complexes get stormed, evil assassins go to work and the whole book gets rather schizophrenic.

Another minor niggle was the fact both the evil women characters in the book are, frankly, gagging for it morning, noon and night. Without wishing to seem too prissily PC, it would have been nice to see a 'good' female character who also really enjoyed a regular roll in the hay. As it is there's a faint whiff of misogyny around these (admittedly infrequent) sex scenes and insinuations, which is a shame because the women characters in PeaceMaker are otherwise quite strong.

So PeaceMaker is a book with a lot of potential, one that had me initially hooked, but which took too long to reach its climax and sadly wasted the energy of that build-up amidst a lot of unnecessary action scenes. I note that Dan Ronco worked as a senior manager with Microsoft, which is presumably where the really good, meaty parts of this book spring from, and if he'd only stuck with what he quite obviously knows best then PeaceMaker would, I feel sure, have been a compelling and intelligent book.

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