ScienceThrillers.com book review of The Doomsday Equation by Matt Richtel.
Publication date: February 24, 2015
Category: thriller; technothriller
Summary (from the publisher):
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and author of A Deadly Wandering comes a pulse-pounding technological thriller—as ingenious as the works of Michael Crichton and as urgent and irresistible as an episode of 24—in which one man has three days to prevent annihilation: the outbreak of World War III.
Computer genius Jeremy Stillwater has designed a machine that can predict global conflicts and ultimately head them off. But he’s a stubborn guy, very sure of his own genius, and has wound up making enemies, and even seen his brilliant invention discredited.
There’s nowhere for him to turn when the most remarkable thing happens: his computer beeps with warning that the outbreak of World War III is imminent, three days and counting.
Alone, armed with nothing but his own ingenuity, he embarks on a quest to find the mysterious and powerful nemesis determined to destroy mankind. But enemies lurk in the shadows waiting to strike. Could they have figured out how to use Jeremy, and his invention, for their own evil ends?
Before he can save billions of lives, Jeremy has to figure out how to save his own. . . .
“Big data” is making it possible to make all kinds of predictions based on correlations with variables that might not seem obviously connected. For example, data on Google searches can be used to predict outbreaks of seasonal flu; predictive policing uses computer models to anticipate crime.
In The Doomsday Equation: A Novel, technology & culture journalist Matt Richtel takes real-world computing capabilities one small step forward and posits a program that can predict global conflict, creating a brilliant premise: what if that program predicted the outbreak of WWIII in three days’ time? And what if the program’s creator was both discredited and uncertain whether the prediction is correct?
Combine this original and gripping hook with a psychologically intense point of view character, and you’ve got a five-star page turner.
Like Richtel’s previous smart thrillers (The Cloud, Devil’s Plaything), The Doomsday Equation is set in San Francisco, with Silicon Valley culture as a backdrop. Doomsday is tighter, leaner, more intense than the previous novels, and likely to appeal to a wider audience. The book’s distinguishing feature is the voice. We are locked in the point of view of protagonist Jeremy Stillwater, told in the third person but with a forcefully first person perspective. Jeremy is alternately infuriating and sympathetic, blatantly self-destructive and yet vulnerable. The reader may want to slap him at times (I did), but never abandon him, which is basically the the same effect Jeremy has on his girlfriend in the story. In The Cloud, author Richtel played with the notion of an unreliable narrator who suffers a head injury in the opening pages, making all his interpretations of events suspect. In this book, unreliability appears again. This time, the protagonist isn’t crazy, but he may be being manipulated. Or is he just paranoid?
One of Richtel’s strengths, then, is using ambiguity to create tension. It works well in Doomsday Equation. Conversations between characters are often both oblique and opaque, as they might be in real life. It’s left to the intelligence of the reader to interpret the subtext. Facts aren’t revealed, they’re implied. Readers accustomed to being spoon-fed a plot may be frustrated by this. As a consequence of this systematic ambiguity, the plots of Richtel’s novels don’t wrap up in tidy packages. As with his previous books, the ending of Doomsday is very satisfying but don’t ask me to explain exactly who did what to whom, and why. But the overall collection of antagonists and motives made sense.
I must mention one other distinctive feature of Richtel’s novels. He writes in the present tense. I think this is an important part of the book’s intensity, but it takes a little getting used to.
I find Richtel to be one of the most quotable science thriller writers and I always like to include some book excerpts in my reviews:
“Like so many in the valley, he’s just shy of fully slick, geeky enough to come across as authentic. This type of businessperson in Silicon Valley is like the do-gooder from college who goes to Washington, DC, and it becomes impossible to tell the difference between their ambitions for the world and for themselves.”
“A man in a fashionable red rain jacket chomps half a donut in a single bite, then looks around furtively,…guiltily wondering if someone might catch him eating too many carbs of the inorganic variety.”
“This development of mining and sifting the world’s conflict rhetoric could help answer an age-old philosophical question about the relationship between language, thought, and action…To what extent are the words we choose insights into what we think–not what we want to communicate, but what we really think?…All the linguistic data, unprecedented insights into the human psyche, a global ink blot test…”
For an intelligent thriller that borders on literary, you can’t do better. The Doomsday Equation creates a thoroughly contemporary flawed genius hero who is ill-suited to the high-stakes task before him: to save the world. As the doomsday clock ticks down, you won’t want to skip a single page.
FCC disclaimer: An advance reader e-copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.