The Cloud

by Matt Richtel

(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Tech rating (out of 5):
Publication date: January 29, 2013
Category: science thriller, mystery, technothriller, medical suspense

Summary (from the back cover):

A late-night accident on a San Francisco subway platform has altered Nat Idle’s reality. But then, there are no accidents.

Disoriented and bloodied after a near-deadly fall onto the subway tracks, freelance journalist Nat Idle discovers that a beautiful stranger has come to his aid . . . and that the burly man who barreled into him had intended to do Nat harm. What he doesn’t know is why—and his quest for answers leads him to uncover a handful of mysterious deaths, and a bizarre neurological disorder plaguing Bay Area children . . . as he ventures ultimately into the Cloud.

In a brave new world, the Cloud is where we store data, secrets, dreams. But it is something more—something insidious with the power to change not just how we interact with the world, but our behavior, and brains. Nat, in search of the truth, finds himself lost in a psychedelic maze, discovering things that cannot possibly be, realizing there is no one and nothing he can trust . . . not even his own mind.

ScienceThrillers Review:

In The Cloud, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and novelist Matt Richtel does it again, giving readers a beautifully written novel of suspense that defies categorization. Brooding, San Francisco-based journalist Nat Idle from Richtel’s 2011 novel Devil’s Plaything, is back with another complex tale of conspiracy, technology, and altered perceptions. In a fascinating back-and-forth between Richtel’s real-life technology reporting for the New York Times and his fiction, The Cloud uses a fictional investigative reporter to ask hard questions about the power and danger of omnipresent electronic devices, constant digital multitasking, intrusive digital surveillance, and the impact these technologies have on human brains.

As with Devil’s Plaything, The Cloud is no potato-chippy beach read. This is an ambitious novel that reflects a deep intelligence (Richtel freely uses words like sartorially and hubris). Readers expecting a standard genre thriller will be disappointed. But for readers who lean toward smart fiction and also want suspense, twisty plot, and some action, The Cloud is an excellent choice. Likewise, if you detest formulaic, made-for-movies plots, this book is for you because it refuses to follow predictable paths.

In his previous novel Devil’s Plaything, Richtel used a clever device to create an uncertain reality for the protagonist: Nat Idle’s sidekick was his grandmother who had dementia; her memories and perceptions could not be trusted.  In The Cloud, Richtel takes this “unreliable narrator” idea one step further. From the first pages of this first-person narrative, when Nat Idle suffers a concussion, the reader knows that our hero’s brain is not functioning the way it should. For the next several hundred pages, Richtel rises to the challenge of showing that Idle’s thinking and memory are unreliable and that Idle is aware of this problem but incapable of doing anything about it.  All the while the reader is kept guessing as to just how badly messed up is the protagonist’s point of view. As far as the reader can tell, locked in Idle’s world-view with him, Idle might be a little bit off his game, or he might be well on his way to a clinical diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.

In other words, is there a conspiracy, or is he making one up in his head?

A major strength of this novel is the sense of place. San Francisco, or more precisely, the South Bay technology corridor which includes Silicon Valley and Palo Alto, is a constant, colorful presence. The physical climate and the social environment are key parts of this tale. As I read The Cloud I started a list of wonderful tidbits that show local character. I quit about a third into the book because the list grew so long. Here are some examples from the early pages:

It’s a first-generation iPhone, which in these parts makes me a Luddite, joke fodder, recipient of sad looks on public transportation.

Maybe this company, like many on the Peninsula, provides bus service from San Francisco, ostensibly an environmental play to reduce traffic and car emissions, but also so employees can get the first wave of emails knocked out during the commute.

Thanks to our hills, valleys, stretches of trees and lush park that suddenly give way to swaths of concrete jungle, I live in microclimate central. This city’s motto should be: Don’t like the weather? Take two steps to the left.

The Cloud earns 4 biohazard symbols for a unique combination of tech and medical themes. Globally, this novel is about technology but it’s not a technical novel. Richtel isn’t interested in engineering; he’s interested in sociology and psychiatry. The Cloud (like Devil’s Plaything before it) explores the negative influences of technology on individuals and on society. Some of these influences can be measured biologically, hence Richtel’s fascination with brain research, which comes out in the novel.

Overlaid atop the tech are peripheral medical themes. Nat Idle is a med school dropout with an odd habit: he makes quick medical diagnoses of people he sees. Blepharospasm, camptocormia, scleroderma, acromegaly: all these awkwardly-named medical conditions get a nod of recognition from Nat.

Throughout, The Cloud works by generating a sense of uncertainty in the reader. Readers who like things clearly explained and who enjoy connecting the dots in a mystery might be put off. The Cloud has a reality-bending feel and some revelations that will have you turning back the pages. Because of the possibility of multiple interpretations of many previous events, this is a hard book to wrap up in the end. Richtel opts to use the Tolkien-esque technique of serial endings, spiced with yet more twists. I was left with a bit of a head-spin as I tried to trace back the plot lines and understand them in the context of the final revelations. My advice: don’t bother. Richtel intentionally leaves some issues unresolved, and others are, I’m sure, logically intact from start to finish, but that’s not the point.

Let The Cloud envelop you in its mists. You’ll want to keep reading ’til the end, and you’ll carry some of that fog with you as you think about this book in the days after you finish reading.

I have to go now. I need to unplug everything in my children’s rooms except the light bulbs.

Learn more about Matt Richtel at his website or by connecting on Facebook.

FCC disclaimer: An advance reader 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.