Pinnacle, 2009, 360 pages
Code named Devlin, he exists in the blackest shadows of the United States government--operating off the grid as the NSA's top agent. He's their most lethal weapon-and their most secret. But someone is trying to draw him out into the open by putting America's citizens in the crosshairs--and they will continue the slaughter until they get what they want.
I am not a regular reader of technothrillers. I think I've read one or two Tom Clancy novels, never been able to make it all the way through a Dan Brown novel, I used to read a lot of Michael Crichton (who was a bit more of a genre-hopper), and I haven't read anything by the current big names like Vince Flynn and Brad Thor. But, I do have a perverse fascination for novels depicting intelligence agencies and the U.S. military and DoD because they almost always get them so very, very badly wrong. (Hey Dan Brown, I want to work at that fabulous federal agency that gives GS employees their own private offices and free gourmet catering at twice the salary of their counterparts in corporate America!)
Now, one expectation of the genre is that the author is probably going to be a right-winger, or at least lean that way. I guess it's kind of natural, if you're writing about American seekrit squirrels saving the world from commies and terrorists. (Seriously, are there any left-leaning authors of technothrillers? No, Neal Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, and Charles Stross don't count, their stuff is straight-up sci-fi.)
So, I read Hostile Intent expecting a right-wing sensibility and without very high literary expectations. But a novel about the NSA? That's a little different. Usually it's either the CIA, Navy Seals, or some made-up Jack Bauer G.I. Joe shit.
Being the godless America-hating leftist I am (don't tell my employer!), you might think I was gunning for Michael Walsh and read this book just to tear it apart, but I honestly wasn't. I don't expect to agree with the narrative POV of every book I read, and I can forgive a lot if the story is entertaining and/or the writing is good. I mean, I still read Ian Fleming, gads help me.
But Ima gonna warn you, if you are one of those people who voted that you prefer non-snarky reviews without f-bombs, hit the back button on your browser now, 'cause baby, the snark is gonna fly...
Won't someone please think of the children?
Hostile Intent begins with an incident at a middle school in Illinois. Swarthy Middle Eastern & Albanian terrorists invade the school, herd all the children and teachers into the gymnasium, wire the place with bombs, and tie shotguns to all the teachers' hands with the barrels pointing at their faces so if they get tired and let their arms fall they blow their own heads off. Very evil and villainous; not very practical.
One of these teachers is a liberal African-American social studies teacher who teaches his middle school students that America is the worst country ever and that the White Man is evil.
Seriously, that's almost word for word.
But he isn't so tough with his hands wired to a shotgun pointed at his face, har har har.
Seriously, that's also almost word for word, minus the "har har har."
The Muslim terrorists (who are repeatedly described as hawk-nosed, ugly, disgusting, bad-smelling, with rotting teeth and gross beards) issue their list of demands: the U.S. out of the Middle East, disband NATO, the President must embrace Islam. One of them takes the time to drag a pretty tween white girl into a closet and molest her. They shoot the stupid pro-gun control reporter, after giving a speech about how "We have many children and you have only one or two each, so killing children doesn't bother us as much."
We are also introduced to the obligatory Cute Kid who is a little "off," which is to say he's got some vague combination of symptoms that our modern namby-pamby liberal medical establishment might diagnose as autism-spectrum and/or ADD, but basically he daydreams and likes to draw pictures, and has been socialized not to fight and to suppress his natural boy-feelings because boy-feelings are bad.
Oh yes, starting on page one you can see Walsh trotting out every single grievance in the anxious right-winger's grimoire to cast at random into the story. Read any random National Review column or tune in to Rush Limbaugh ejaculating rage and penile insecurity on the air for half an hour. Guaranteed, whatever the grievance of the day is, whether it's quiche-eating metrosexuals feminizing our precious bodily fluids or white women not having enough babies, Walsh will insert it somewhere in this book, and no, it never has a damn thing to do with the plot.
Mostly what we learn in this first scene is that Muslims are orcs and when sprayed with blood and teeth from a shotgun blast, little boys clench their jaws with steely determination to do something to the bad guys, while little girls cry.
This will be a recurring theme. Every time something bad happens, Walsh emphasizes how the men get pissed off and determined to do something while the women stand around crying. Even the White House press corps.
The exception is the occasional woman whose
Meet the President
As soon as President Jeb Tyler is introduced as "a fabulously wealthy trial lawyer," you know where this is going. He is very popular with women, especially pro-choice women, because he has fabulous hair.
Yes, really. Another near-direct quote.
(Pro-life women are not as fond of him because thanks to him suing so many doctors in his home state, there are no more ob/gyns there. Apparently pro-choice women don't need ob/gyns. Yes, really, I ain't makin' this shit up, y'all.)
President Jeb Tyler, who has a "fetish for bipartisanship" and who is "widely regarded in his own party as a weasel" is apparently the most powerful U.S. President in history, because in his first term he has successfully enacted nationwide hate crimes legislation, universal health care, and state-sponsored daycare for all working mothers.
(You really do think I'm making this up, don't you?)
You would think this would either make Tyler the most popular President ever or else (if Walsh's right-wing worldview is correct -- remember, he thinks those are all bad things), the U.S. should be collapsing into anarchy and depravity, the economy in ruins, middle school children having abortion parties in the cafeteria, dogs and cats living in sin, etc. But no, America seems to have survived all this horrible liberal legislation just fine, and yet Tyler's poll numbers are plummeting. He's in danger of losing reelection. Yes, a President who actually got universal health care enacted without bankrupting the economy as all the right-wingers say it will is in danger of being voted out of office. Why? Is it because the economy is weak? Is it because America is still bleeding lives away in foreign wars?
No, it's because the country is bored (!!!) and "craves change," and the women who elected him are tired of his "metrosexual persona" and want a "lumberjack."
Yes, those women and their silly ladybrains will throw a President out of office even though he's enacting everything they want because they're bored with his fabulous hair and want someone more manly. It's not like women actually vote their political interests or anything.
Now, Walsh surprises us later in the book. He has President Tyler take several levels in bad-ass, man up, and start kicking terrorist ass. "Hah," says Walsh, see, you thought I was just going to make fun of the liberal caricature weenie President!
Yes, President Tyler mans up by realizing all that Constitutional bullshit and so-called limits on the powers of the Executive Branch just gets in the way when you've got bad guys to kill. Among other things he authorizes pretty much unlimited surveillance and shoot-to-kill orders. And he has the Vice President (who turns out to have been working against him) held prisoner and threatens him with summary execution if he doesn't get with the program.
But this is all okay, not horrifying as it would be if a liberal president did these things, because after manning up President Tyler is obviously now a conservative. When he has the audacity to refer to terrorists as "scum":
several reporters made a mental note to contact... well, somebody to see if any group could possibly take offense at such an un-PC characterization.
Meet our hero
I haven't really talked about Walsh's writing yet, but here is a direct quote for you to wrap your head around:
The man known as Devlin was born on December 27, 1985, in Rome, Italy. At the time, he was eight years old.
There will be more.
Devlin is a GARY STU of STUS. (If you were eight years old when you were born, you'd probably be pretty awesome too.)
He watched his mother die in a terrorist attack at age eight (or was it when he was born? I still haven't quite figured it out) and like every eight-year-old boy whose mother is killed before his eyes, he dons a cape and cowl to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, who are a superstitious and cowardly lot.
Okay, he skips the cape and cowl. But he becomes an expert at EVERYTHING, including learning languages in an afternoon. No, really.
Years later, when a woman asked him how he learned Italian, he replied, "One afternoon it was raining, so I learned Italian." There was no point in exaggerating.
No point indeed.
Devlin's manly Batman-angst will be plumbed thoroughly, over and over. He has no family, which is a well of deep and unending manly pain. (Except he does have a family: a wife and a daughter. Who only exist as a way to give him further angst during the story in a manner that by now I'm sure is thoroughly predictable.)
Devlin is a member of the National Security Agency's "Branch 4." This is a super-dooper double-dog top secret organization within the NSA that's so classified that even the President doesn't know about it until he needs to.
Your tax dollars at work
Hostile Intent contains the most ridiculous portrayal of the NSA since Dan Brown's Digital Fortress.
Now, in fairness, hardly anyone gets any of the intelligence agencies right, even though there is actually a surprising amount of information that is publicly available. It's true that the NSA and the CIA won't usually invite fiction authors into their headquarters to do background research for the new spy thriller they're writing, but research, people! The joke about the NSA used to be that it was called "No Such Agency," but it's not that secret...
No, really, it isn't.
So first of all, the NSA's mission is SIGNALS INTELLIGENCE. Yes, they're the guys who tap your phones and watch you from spy satellites. Except actually the NSA is strictly limited by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the U.S. Constitution, the President, and Congress. But even if you believe that intelligence agencies routinely ignore the law and can do any damn thing they please without oversight or consequences (and yes, I have no doubt various branches of the defense/intelligence community do run "black ops" of some form or another), running a team of ninja assassins does not even make sense for the NSA. It's not their mission, it's not what the NSA is about -- what would they do with a "Branch 4"? If the NSA had a chunk of money to spend on super-soldiers, they'd spend it on more computers and pay bonuses for its executive staff officers, just like any other federal agency.
Branch 4 is described as:
The tip of the tip of the spear.
So, they're like the tippy-tip? The pointy part of the tip? As opposed to everyone else in the DoD who's somewhere a little farther back on the tip? What the fuck is that even supposed to mean? No, really, if you want to send in commandos to take out bad guys, that's why we have fucking SEAL teams and Special Forces. Also? If you have a school being taken hostage in fucking Illinois, the NSA is not who the President is going to call because all the NSA will do is say "Well, Mr. President, we can point a satellite at it if you give us a FISA exemption." (And DOD directives and the Posse Comitatus Act would make it awfully hard to send in SEAL teams, too.)
But fine, Hostile Intent is a work of fiction, so whatever, the NSA has its very own black ops commando team. I guess it's no more stupid than G.I. Joe.
Branch 4 officers are so secret they are required to kill anyone who learns their real identities.
Also, when Devlin is on the phone with the President on Air Force One, he proceeds to tell the POTUS to STFU because:
"A Branch 4 Op had every right to refuse a Presidential request. With their lives on the line every time, they were the arbiters of their own fate."
ORLY? I'll bet all those Special Forces guys would love to know that with their lives on the line, they have every right to refuse a Presidential "request."
If Devlin were supposed to be some kind of freelancer who occasionally does work for the President if he feels like it, I might buy this, but no, he is an employee of the NSA, and Walsh even makes a point earlier of having Devlin go on about how he took an oath to serve and protect and he takes his oath seriously. Yeah, except when he doesn't feel like it, apparently.
Incidentally, Devlin will later bitch-slap the Secretary of Defense and the Director of the NSA, and kill a bunch of FBI agents. He kind of feels bad about the latter, but apparently this didn't violate any oaths or anything, so it's no biggie. No, really. His federal employers never mention the little matter of his killing a few fellow federal employees.
Level 3 Remodulators and Level 6 Double-Blind Encryption
So, Michael Walsh wrote a novel about the NSA without understanding anything about it, or about technology, or about cryptography. You'd think if you are going to write about the NSA you'd at least want to get your terms right, but Hostile Intent is kind of like Star Trek in that technology is really just a bunch of technobabble that actually means "magic":
...scrambled with level 3 remodulators. A stealth encryption field descended so that even the most adept or malicious hacker would be left trying to apprehend emptiness.
WTF is a "level 3 remodulator"? Or a "stealth encryption field"?
The White House wifi was encrypted, and as safe as the best minds at the NSA could make it. Which didn't preclude an Israeli or Bulgarian teenager from hacking in occasionally.
Wait a minute, why don't they just use one of those Level 3 remodulators?
Yeah, the NSA, which in this book can tap any phone or computer, anywhere, any time, and which earlier is able to take a video image of a guy in a trench coat seen from behind and "reconstruct" him and instantly match him to a terrorist database, is no match for teenage hackers.
(Well, okay, that part may be realistic.)
Sealy tapped another key sequence, and suddenly the electronic version of the dossier was atomized, scattered to the four winds of cyberspace.
Mr. Walsh, I think you are mangling your metaphors.
In this book, supercomputers are powered by a hadron collider, and Devlin is able to access NSA, CIA, and FBI computer systems from home.
But at one point, Devlin actually has to go to the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade. He has his own private office there.
It's in a bathroom.
No, really. Rather than having, you know, an actual office, Devlin being a super-secret Branch 4 guy has this special bathroom in the NSA building where biometric scanners in the toilet and mirror will slide back a hidden wall panel to give him access to his very own supercomputer. Also, if he starts to activate the biometric scanners but does not complete the sequence, plastic explosives will blow the place. Which is all explained so that Walsh can tell a bathroom joke when some poor janitor has to take a dump while Devlin is trying to access his secret office.
I... but... what.... why? Why does this make sense? Why does Devlin have a secret bathroom-office wired with explosives in a (very expensive, very secure) federal office building full of expensive equipment and expensive employees and if Branch 4 is so fucking super-secret, who built this thing?
Now come on, if this was a Will Smith movie we'd all shrug and say, "Yeah, that's stupid," but this is supposed to be a "serious" technothriller for adults.
For bonus LOLs, the traitorous Vice President who turns on the President holds a press conference in which he reveals the NSA's dirty secret:
"all of your phone calls and emails have been intercepted by a sinister branch of the NSA called the Central Security Service.
Wait, you mean this Central Security Service that's been part of the NSA and included in its full official title since 1972 and which is included on everything from web pages to organizational letterhead? Wow, they're almost as sinister and secretive as Branch 4!
Meet the Villain
So, those Muslims terrorists? They weren't the real bad guys. Oh, sure, they were bad guys (and we'll be treated to plenty more asides about how Muslims are bloodthirsty barbarians and Arabs are cowardly, backstabbing, dishonorable sand-monkeys), but they were the puppets of the real villain.
Who is that, you want to know? Well, I can reveal without spoiling much since he's introduced in the first couple of chapters:
It's George Soros!
Okay, it's not actually George Soros. It's just an effete, European atheist sexually rapacious leftist billionaire to whom any resemblance to any actual George Soroses living or dead is purely coincidental my ass.
His evil, evil plan is to deliver the deathblow to America and Western Europe after having spent a lifetime undermining Western civilization with feminism, agnosticism, and communism. Yes, really. You see, convincing everyone to have sex without consequences by making birth control and abortion easily available means declining population rates and the collapse of pension and insurance systems, followed by civil war and the collapse of Western society as the fecund immigrant hordes take over.
In that, she resembled her European sisters: resigned to sacrificing the continent's future to the immigrant hordes in order to savor their Pyrrhic victory over the Patriarchy.
Why does he want to do this?
Filled with self-loathing, obsessed with a 'fairness principle' that could never be fully realized, they had turned France, and much of Western Europe, into a land in which women declined the rigors and joys of childbirth in order to realize their potential as incomplete men. One generation and out. Who knew it would be that easy? Two generations after the defeat of fascism, Europe had become a suicide cult. Poor stewards of a thousand years of glory, it was time for them to go.
Because he's a godless commie liberal. Yes, really.
Other things that are stupid according to Walsh
He heard Wolf Blitzer's voice yipping like a small puppy.
Among those groups singled out here and there for anything from a one-line jibe to an extensive narrative digression are lawyers, psychologists, doctors, teachers, professors, journalists (especially journalists), politicians, voters, the police, the FBI, Americans, Europeans, women, liberals, atheists, agnostics, Muslims, socialists, communists, anarchists, Presidents, Hollywood, parents, civilians, metrosexuals, homosexuals, people who live in big cities, people who live on the coast, oh hell I'm sure I forgot a few.
The editorial standards of Pinnacle
So, I'm sure you're thinking, "Okay, maybe the story is cheesy and one great big axe grinding on every single right-wing obsession since Nixon entered politics, but how's the writing?" I mean, a story can still be entertaining if the writer is at least competent at spinning a yarn and stringing words together, right?
You can tell Walsh really wants us to take his writing seriously, because he keeps opening chapters with quotes from that noted conservative bad-ass, Marcus Aurelius.
Unfortunately, he then follows them with writing like this:
He didn't just do nothing when he had nothing to do. He did something.
Here is the climax of the final showdown between Devlin and his terrorist Euro-assassin opposite number:
No time to relax: dead wasn't dead until dead was dead.
Most of the writing is of this caliber. When Walsh isn't writing shit that's just plain dumb on a sentence-and-word level, he's going on rants about anything that can be even remotely associated with liberalism. This is not just an authorial POV lurking between the lines or a certain perspective coloring the story, it's an axe whose grinding throws hot burning sparks in your eyes as you read. Walsh cannot go a paragraph without embarking upon yet another National Review column disguised as exposition. That neither Walsh nor his characters ever actually come out and say "Liberals suck" in just those words, and President Tyler's party affiliation is never mentioned (yeah, really, come on) does not suggest that Walsh was trying to be either subtle or subversive, only that he's trying to maintain a fig-leaf of deniability. Which, you know, would be okay, if he could actually write. Am I being particularly verbose and vitriolic about this particular work of violently substandard fiction because it's an absurd right-wing fantasy and I'm a big ol' honkin' librul? Well, yeah. But seriously, even if I were a Dittohead, I'd be embarrassed to be writing crap like this.
Verdict: BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Oh gads this was awful. And yet apparently this series is a best-seller. Reading the 5-star reviews for this book is an exercise in WTFery, like, even if you agree with the author's political views, doesn't anyone care about a book that just exhibits basic writing and plotting skills and some thin pretense of verisimilitude? No, don't answer that.