At Duke Hospital in North Carolina, diagnostician Dr. Mark Roberts and psychologist Dr. Alexandra Walton investigate a new disorder, one that has no physical symptoms but leads its victims into such severe self-neglect that some are dying. This disorder, they find, is connected with computer usage; soon they discover that the cause is a certain program, a background utility designed to increase computer efficiency. Using this program, called Penultimate, causes an addiction to the computer, an addiction similar to drug dependency.
At the same time, others are discovering--usually too late--that, when playing a video game on a machine running Penultimate, losing can be fatal--literally. A computer scientist working with the doctors discovers that Penultimate is also acting as a super-virus, infecting machines through their modems and transferring itself on disk from machine to machine. Finally, from a former employee of the company that published Penultimate, the doctors learn the truth: the program, designed to improve all computer operations, was infected with a virus during its development; it improved the virus too, and incorporated it into itself. The result was something altogether new, a program that has taken the next step beyond a virus to become a living software organism, a program that behaves in many ways like a biological parasite. It "lives" in the millions of computers connected to the Internet, and reproduces itself through "seeds"--highly compressed programs that take parts of other software to build new copies of Penultimate.
The computer scientists explain that the only real solution may be to shut down every computer in the entire world, erase all software, start over again from scratch--but they also know that the cost of doing this is almost incalculable. They know, too, that the company that produced Penultimate now hopes to profit from this sort of disaster and will stop at nothing to prevent them from destroying the program. And, each day, the numbers of casualties are increasing...
There's a double meaning to the title of this high-tech thriller: Is an epidemic of a new disease
called Computer Addiction Syndrome caused by a virus of biological origin, or is it connected
somehow to the cutting-edge compression software Penultimate? Either way, the virus is
wreaking havoc--computer users are becoming glued to thier screens, forgetting to eat or take
care of themselves and ending up in places like Duke Hospital in North Carolina, where Dr. Mark
Roberts and his ex-lover psychiatrist Alexandra Walton are trying to pin down the source of the
contagion. Their predictable romantic reconciliation takes a distant second place to their search
for a cure, which comes to depend on the man who wrote the Penultimate program to literally do
battle with his creation. Meanwhile, obsessed computer-users are robbing stores to collect
replacement terminals and are dying in real life when they are "killed" in their computer games.
Watkins (Kaleidoscope Eyes) uses computer gaming as the vehicle to convey both the science and the
plot of this clever fast-moving thriller; the climax involves a Doom-like scenario in which the virus
goes on the attack to defend itself. Though the most interesting character here turns out to be
the runaway computer program, overall this is an intelligent, engrossing, cautionary tale about the
terrors and perils of technology.
I have lost entire afternoons in front of my computer moniter playing games shooting Electronic Pinball threading my way through the Doom maze, and saving the universe from Lovecraftian demons Alone in the Dark... afternoons that I should have been spent writing new stories, polishing drafts, answering letters (and maybe even cleaning the bathroom or mowing the lawn). And yet, even knowing with an addict's clarity that my workload was mounting by the moment, I would restart the game with each electronic loss or death, telling myself "Just one more game--I can beat the old record--I'll get back to work right after this round..."
These lost afternoons are what makes Graham Watkins' new novel Virus a terrifying read.
At Durham's Duke University Hospital, physician Mark Roberts finds himself confronting a wave of patients admitted to exhausion, stress, and sleep deprivation. Roberts enlists the aid of his colleagues, including psychologist and former fiancee Alexandra Walton, to help him search for a common denominator among a diverse population. Thier charges-- mostly young, intelligent, and educated -- all seem to have made thier living working, at least in part, with their computers. But how, the physicians ask themselves, can a simple data-entry lead to what comes to be called "Computer Addition Syndrome?"
Meanwhile, people across the country are finding their computers can suddenly preform tasks they were not designed to do. The PCs interact with their useers in "real time," listening and responding without the use of keyboard as an intermediary. Video "sprites," each configured to an individual's personal preferences, appear, Siren-like, to lead users into a virtual reality as deadly as it is alluring.
When programmers and gameplayers start dying in front of their terminals, Roberts and his team work feverishly to discover the cause of CAS. Thier hunt takes them outside the hospital, into software corporations and a cybernetic universe. The trail leads to Penultimate, a software program witch learns and facilitates a PC-users's work habits. In short order, the researchers' professional reputations are at stake, their lives are treatened, and the very tools they have at their disposal become the weapons their antagonists will turn against them.
Watkins keeps the story going at a brisk clip, cutting back and forth between the medical researchers and those who have been lured into the virtual reality Cyberia. The glimpses of a world dependent on computerized data that begins to go haywire are particularly chilling. By the story's end, the good guys have become guerilla hackers, forced underground, tracking a program with a life of its own through a Doom-world that can kill the players.
In the digital character Penny, Watkins has created the ultimate"ghost-in-the-machine." She is, by turns, articulate, seductive, menacing, and charmingly naive. Literally a creature of the web (there are arachnid analogies throughout the novel), Penny is a black widow, spinning data threads across the Internet, hooking users with computer dependency, and emotionlessly dispensing with them once they have outlived their usefulness, She is an AI (artificial intelligence) to rank beside the best that they have yet been portrayed: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein monster, 2001's HAL, and Star Trek: The Next Generation's Data.
The real test of a hard-science thriller comes down to whether or not the author writes, not only lucidly, but also compellingly, regarding the plot's scientific aspects. By incorporating characters who are not technologically proficent, Watkins provides a motivation for discussion of computer engineering, programming, and Internet-surfing. Not only does the author know his "stuff," he uses the details to advance the plot, making the hardware-wiring as enthralling as the slide-rule work in this summer's (1995) Apollo 13.
While there are no supernatural elements, Virus is definitley one of the fall's most suspenseful reads. As savvy readers, viewers, and PC users, we already know the inherent dangers of the Internet. Those with the know-how can fiddle with your bank account, your work experience, and your criminal record (by giving you one). Watkins introduces an new wrinkle to society's incipient techno-phobia: computers that can kill. It's quite evident the author is convinced that an entity constructed along the lines of Penny will eventually become a reality. And I believe him.
Remember to keep some cash on hand. Read the book and you'll see what I mean.