Long before ebooks appeared, computers were providing rich material for writers. From William Gibson to EM Forster, the author of Roadside Crosses rounds up the best
A cracking read … Dougray Scott as Tom Jericho in the film version of Enigma.
Former journalist, folk singer and lawyer, Jeffery Deaver’s 25 novels and two short story collections have been translated into 25 languages and appeared on bestseller lists around the world. He’s been awarded the Steel Dagger and Short Story Dagger from the British Crime Writers’ Association, and is a three-time recipient of the Ellery Queen reader’s award.
“I write roller coasters. My job is to strap my readers into the car, crank them to the top and let them plummet through the book, holding on for dear life. With this as my goal, I look for themes and situations for my thrillers that will stoke my audience’s paranoia as much as I can. Now that computers and the internet are part of everyday life, I’ve exploited these phenomena as vehicles to get my readers to think: ‘Oh man, that could happen to me.’ In my new novel, Roadside Crosses, cyberbullying, social networking and blogging lead to a series of horrific crimes. As part of the fun, I’ve created a real (well, fictional) blog whose web addresses I’ve worked into the book itself and that includes not only material from the novel, but artwork and extra clues to unravel the mystery.”
Here are my top ten picks for novels featuring the internet or computers.
1. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
The authors who brought us cyberpunk (the concept and the term itself) penned a computer thriller with indeed a difference: It takes place in 19th-century London. The device in question operates on steam, and the plot is driven by missing punch cards. Figuring prominently in the story are the real-life mathematician and philosopher Charles Babbage and Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada, who was in fact the world’s first computer programmer.
2.The Venus Fix by MJ Rose
A fast-paced crime novel about a Manhattan psychiatrist who is treating patients addicted to internet pornography. There’s great, fast-paced entertainment in this book, but it also raises important questions about the relationship between violence, porn and voyeurism. The shrink, Dr Morgan Snow, is a recurring character of Rose.
3. Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow
One of the true classics of manga, the Japanese comic books. In the not so distant future, the world is a massive network of computers and robotic technology (think: The Matrix movies, only done much, much better) in which cyborgs—a blend of human and robot—run everything. The loosely joined episodes of the story follow a team of cyborgs, under a particularly skilled and not unattractive commander, as they stop terrorists from stealing the souls (the “ghost” of the title) of humans. Start with Volume 1, then move on to the many, many offspring, including some equally classic anime. Shirow is both writer and artist.
4. Home Before Dark by Charles Maclean
Though not prolific, Maclean is a formidable writer, who takes simple ideas and turns them into compelling thrillers. In the recent Home Before Dark, Maclean takes on a subject I’m surprised hasn’t been dealt with more: the internet chat room, which was one of the earliest attractions of online life and that has proven to be among the most dangerous. I’m a sucker for the twisting plot, and that’s one of Maclean’s specialities.
5. Death Match by Lincoln Child
Both a stand-alone author and collaborator (with Douglas Preston), Child has created a high-concept, high-tech thriller that may turn you off computer dating forever. More than a half-million customers have hooked up thanks to a matchmaking supercomputer so brilliant that nothing can go wrong with their relationships. Except for the fact that they start to kill themselves. How’s that for a set-up? We’re used to all sorts of heroes in thriller fiction but Death Match features a new breed of detective: a marriage counsellor, the appealing Dr Lash.
6. Thinks by David Lodge
I first came across Lodge through his wonderful The Art of Fiction but then picked up and enjoyed several of his gemlike socially observant novels set in academia. While there are no malicious HAL 9000s or gun-toting, black-coated cyborgs, there is battle: Cognitive science and computers provide the backdrop for the funny, barbed and provocative back-and-forth between Ralph, a celebrity professor with an expertise in artificial intelligence, and Helen, a novelist and Henry James scholar. The debate is about sex, morality, immortality and what it means to be human.
7. Enigma by Robert Harris
The author of the great historical what-if, Fatherland, and the great recent what-if (some might say, what-was), The Ghost, Harris wrote this thriller as a fictional take on Alan Turing and the Hut 8 crowd in Bletchley Park during the second world war. With his co-workers, Turing, considered by some the father of modern computer science, managed the impossible: cracking the code of the Nazi encryption device Enigma and saving thousands of lives. Harris’s story broadens the story for dramatic effect, as any good novelist shaping a true story should do, but the portrayal of the breaking of the code is 100% accurate.
8. A Maze of Death by Philip K Dick
I don’t write science fiction, though I read much of it growing up. No top 10 of computer-oriented novels would be complete without something by Dick, as the devices figure in one way or another in all of his stories. His Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for the movie Blade Runner) and Ubik are more frequently mentioned, but Maze is my favorite. It’s less relentlessly bleak than some (that is a compliment, by the way) and it speeds along like a classic thriller. A disparate group of colonists end up on a distant planet and are forced to fend for themselves in a world where reality and perception blur. I consider this a computer novel because of the mysterious “tenches,” part oracle, part circuitry, part Jell-O.
9. Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
The author’s boundless imagination has always been, for me, his key selling point, and this first novel is a sure indicator of what was to come. Nearly 60 years old, its tale of an individual against a society run by machines still holds its own. Vonnegut conceived the idea while working in a factory and hearing workers worry that their jobs would someday be replaced by “a little clicking box”. Far-fetched, hmm?
10. The Machine Stops by EM Forster
Imagine this: A novella about a world in which people live in small cubicles, rarely get outside, and communicate mostly through instant messaging and video conferencing, while there’s a huge computer network around the planet, monitoring all human activity. Oh, by the way, it was written in 1909. Though not particularly subtle, the story was penned by the author of A Passage to India, so the quality of the prose shines through. When the machine of the title begins to stutter, humans are forced to wonder if life on the abandoned surface of the earth – as in the “old days” – might not be their only salvation.