Fuchs, Michael Stephen: The Manuscript
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MacMillan New Writing © 2006, 348 pages [amazon]
The meaning of life is out there, a Usenet rumor has it, hidden on the web at an unregistered IP address, on a protocol no one uses, waiting for some genius hacker to stumble on it. Such, at least, is the purport of Michael Stephen Fuchs's interesting but uneven technothriller, The Manuscript. The text that gives the book its title was purportedly written by 19th-century explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton after he stumbled on the answers to life's riddles in the mountains of Argentina. It's being sought in the present century by a host of people, most of them heavily-armed baddies, most of them more interested in profit than enlightenment. Among those hunting for the manuscript are Fuchs's protagonists, a quartet of twenty-somethings who are vaguely dissatisfied with the trajectory of their lives: Dana Steckler, a graduate student in medical ethics at Thomas Jefferson College; her friend Miles Darken, a sysadmin with his own Bersa .380; Miles's cyber-acquaintaince, intelligence agent Celeste Browning; and chemistry student turned high-tech drug dealer FreeBSD, the genius hacker who manages, after all, to find that hidden IP address.
The meaning of life is out there, a Usenet rumor has it, hidden on the web at an unregistered IP address, on a protocol no one uses, waiting for some genius hacker to stumble on it.Fuchs's book starts well. It's set in a decidedly wired world and peopled by intelligent technogeeks, and the author is adept at getting his characters' jargon and the feel of their world down on paper. He is also able to make technical information interesting and intelligible, maybe even sexy, as in this passage in which he writes about IP packets:
"If you could follow a whole burst of IP packets, a group of IP packets, that cohered on reassembly into something like an e-mail message...But you can't, because not cohering is what IP packets do. On their way from--to pick a couple of spots entirely at random--Hookeville, Virginia, to New York City, New York, basically the job of these data packets, as dictated by the odd magic of the Internet Protocol, is to swarm across the internet willy-nilly, each trying to find a good route to, not even their final destination, but just a next destination that might get them, not even necessarily closer to, but just still moving on toward, their final destination. Still, it's possible, probably not even uncommon, for all the packets that make up an e-mail message to traverse the same route, all side by side in formation, like sea horses riding into battle."
I love the way the author sometimes pauses his narrative with these highly technical bits of explication--on IP packets or tunnel vision or the tactical considerations of the various parties to a Mexican stand-off. Some of these passages really shine. Here's the conclusion to Fuchs's discussion of IP packets:
"So, if you could follow a burst of IP packets, say from Hookeville, Virginia, to New York, New York--if you were to piggyback on one of those hundreds of little blips, firing staccato out the back of a machine, tumbling through a local hub and router, sluicing onto some optical fiber strung hill over dale, zipping swarms of oscillating light, splaying outward in pulses much too fast to consider, broken apart and reassembled a dozen times while tumbling through a dozen more routers, darting stealthily through the wall of a nondescript office building in midtown Manhattan, reassembled a last time, all the parts accounted for and in just the right place, turned into magnetism on the shiny copper plate of a hard drive, where to wait faithfully and patiently all the night through to be read by just one person, to be turned into a file, and into pixels, and into light, and into optical pulses, and into ideas, and into someone else's mind...is this what genuine and meaningful contact between two human beings might look like?
Is this what falling in love might look like?
In case you didn't notice--and I bet you didn't--that whole first paragraph is a single sentence.
But there are problems with the book. It's hard to keep track of Fuchs's numerous secondary characters or to understand the motivations of a good many of them; a character who seems to be important at the start of the book (Paulina) soon drops out of the story, never to be heard from again; and our protagonists, whatever their dissatisfaction with the status quo in the early chapters, seem too prepared to upend their lives, and too prepared to finance their new lives with ill-gotten gain--a decision which you'd think would at least give them some pause. (Knowledge of the meaning of life seems to have little practical effect and does not preclude profiting from the sale of drugs.) Most importantly, there isn't much of a plot here. The story, so promising at first, devolves into a series of confusing gun battles. These go on too long, until finally the book comes to an unsatifsfying conclusion.
I don't want to end on a negative note, however, because Fuchs's writing style really is unusual and interesting and intelligent. I hope he writes more, and that he wraps his gorgeous techno-prose around a stronger story next time.
Review summary: The meaning of life is out there, hidden on the web at an unregistered IP address, waiting for some genius hacker to stumble on it. Such, at least, is the purport of Michael Stephen Fuchs's uneven technothriller. The manuscript of the book's title, written by 19th-century explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton, is being sought in the present century by a host of people, among them Fuchs's protagonists, a quartet of twenty-somethings who are vaguely dissatisfied with their lives. Fuchs's book is set in a decidedly wired world and peopled by technogeeks. The author is adept at getting his characters' jargon and the feel of their world down on paper, and he is able to make technical information interesting and intelligible. Unfortunately, it is difficult to keep track of the author's numerous secondary characters, and there isn't much of a plot on offer.