Maximum Impact

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 July, 2008, 12:00am

Maximum Impact

by Jack Henderson

Little, Brown, HK$122

Cliche. It is the first thing journalists are warned to avoid when writing their stories. We don't always achieve it (sometimes not by a long way) but the mantra is there and it is drummed into our heads from cub reporter onwards.

On the other hand, there is giving the public what it wants. Some newspapers would not publish a page without it. And if cliche means giving the public what it wants, then Jack Henderson should be a popular man indeed.

From reading his notes at the end of Maximum Impact, this book was a long time coming. It took personal as well as financial sacrifice and had to appear as an independently published e-book before being absorbed by the mainstream.

And it shifted a lot of copies: enough to bring mega-bucks backing. Airport bookshop status, mass-marketing campaigns and billboards followed. Now that it has all that mainstream attention, however, what is it that lurks between the covers?

Essentially, it is the tale of a small crew of elite government agents who find themselves pitched against the System, racing against time, with the fate of the world hanging in their all-American hands. Sound familiar?

Jeannie Reese is a child computer prodigy who just happens to be: a) beautiful b) a hacker c) a martial-arts expert and d) a virgin. Her erstwhile nemesis (or hero) is elusive hacker phr33k ('Freak'), a virtual god in the underground world of anarchist IT weirdos. He predicts September 11 and a much wider conspiracy that would make the twin towers' collapse look like something from children's television.

Reese surrounds herself with a gay assistant and a kindly older data-recovery expert (shades of Morgan Freeman) who seems to take a fatherly interest in her well-being. Creating a supercomputer program, she sets out to hunt down phr33k and discover what he knows about the terror attacks that so nearly killed her, and her colleagues, at the Pentagon.

Soon, shady quasi-governmental agencies start shutting down or taking over her work and begin looking for phr33k - an overweight, 40-something recluse - in his downtown New York lair.

Meanwhile, Reese falls in love with her Navy Seal bodyguard, a ruthless killer stalks them, slaying whomever he meets, and a villain who would not look amiss in an Austin Powers movie has other bad guys killed in a manner not dissimilar to that of a James Bond spoof. Then it becomes silly.

Henderson has perhaps watched too much 24 or read too much Tom Clancy to strike out convincingly from the conspiracy plot and anti-governmental bias recognisable to many American readers.

To be fair, the book reads quickly enough and it is the product of a lot of research into underground hacking culture. But the rest is a cartoon that had me rubbing my eyes.

The paper-thin conspiracy theory plot, embarrassingly cliched when it comes to relationships, has for the most part two-dimensional characters (except perhaps phr33k); a grand maniacal villain manipulating al-Qaeda; and numerous clandestine bad guys sharing comic-book white supremacist and anti-government beliefs while managing to infiltrate the highest levels of the administration. And a saccharine-laced, flag-waving 'America the hero' theme runs through it all.

No doubt it will be an international best-seller.