As a big fan of Mr Suarez’s earlier works, he takes his exploration of technology and its intersection with mankind to the next level, examining the impact of advanced technologies and how the unrestrained progress of the 21st century could be dragging us towards oblivion. The organization he imagines, the Bureau of Technology Control (BTC, the acronym often used for BitCoin) is as ominous as it gets, rolling together a pervasive surveillance state, “special ops”-style raids and assaults in the continental United States, and extraordinary rendition, detention, and interrogation at a unique black site.
Pre-9/11, this would come off more as an examination of how our republic’s government seeks to shape the conversation and shackles for what a small cabal decides, with no accountability or oversight, is the greater good. Cold War-era themes of great power competition amongst nearly-equal organizations underscores the arms race that takes place largely outside of but in the background of the story.
In the shadow of the 9/11, however, the novel feels more like an indictment of the national security apparatus. It’s fair to say that accountability and transparency are joined by a push for civilian oversight, led of all organizations by the newest department, Homeland Security (DHS). This may strike some readers as comical, given DHS’ continued efforts against transparency, accountability, or oversight from the ground level to the senior policymakers implementing programs like family separation and targeted deportation in suburban environments, which disturbingly mirror some tactical situations in the novel. The head of the fictions BTC is fearsome and driven, seeing his role as a duty that transcends international and national laws and treaties, grossly violating human rights, and concealing his programs from the lawful US government, by which he claims to be chartered. Clearly, as dots are connected, and new tentacles of the sinister BTC exposed, we are not meant to identify with this rogue organization that does what it believes is in the interest of the nation yet off-book and unaccountably.
To some who read this in the federal government, it could be taken as a blunt criticism of the rendition, detention, and interrogation team, the operation of overseas “black sites”, media manipulation, global surveillance, and the perpetually-alleged suppression of life-saving/changing technologies by various “three-letter agencies”, as the author terms them at one point. I would have enjoyed a more through elucidation of the way this BTC split from its parent, its legal mandate, how the organization interfaces with the rest of the government (beyond a handful of throwaway sentences about providing intelligence), and most importantly the legal basis for its various extraordinary programs under US law. How does is surveillance authorized vis-à-vis warrants of any stripe? How can a vehicle secure diplomatic or government plates while so divorced from normal functionaries like the GSA? Do any of these shadowy operatives receive an income, pay taxes, or have a passport (not once mentioned even for a particular long-serving agent previously in the US military)?
I adore Mr Suarez’s works, having read this one in a six-hour marathon, and while I have further questions, I cannot give this less than five stars for his conscientious examination of the impact of advanced technologies on humankind. His science is accurate, as real as possible, and touches on explaining even advanced theoretical concepts when it makes sense for characters to do so (since they are so often theoreticians or engineers thereof). His characters reflect a deep understanding of what makes extraordinary people in extraordinary situations tick, and his plot is once again a tightly-woven tapestry of diversity and human decency meeting the worst impulses of our kind. Bravo, sir!