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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

  

Zero Day

by
Mark Russinovich


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Zero Day



Title: Zero Day
Author: Mark Russinovich
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 328 pages
Availability: Zero Day - US
Zero Day - UK
Zero Day - Canada
Zero Day - India
  • Preface by Howard A. Schmidt

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Our Assessment:

B- : decent idea, but the suspense too by-the-numbers to be particularly suspenseful

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 10/1/2011 .


  From the Reviews:
  • "The author effectively employs the usual genre types -- government traitors, amoral hackers, professional assassins -- but his main characters spend too much time at the keyboard to build up much heat." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Zero Day is a cyber-thriller, a race against time to prevent a nasty computer virus from being unleashed -- and likely bring down much of the (Western) world.
       As is eventually explained:

Zero day was a term use to identify software bugs for which no fix exists, that aren't widely known, and that malware authors use to spread their viruses.
       That's certainly what they're dealing with here. The novel begins with several catastrophic computer failures on 11 August. One of them is at a New York law firm, who then hire computer expert Jeff Aiken to try to fix the problem. Jeff used to work in a Cyberterrorism Unit of the CIA but had gone into business for himself as a cyber-security watchdog and fixer -- because: "He knew the government was where he belonged, but it was too mired in bureaucracy for him to be effective".
       Jeff had a bad experience at the CIA: back in 2001 he figured out that then practically unknown Al Qaeda was planning something big and bad on 11 September, with targets including the New York World Trade Center, and he had brought the information to his boss, George Carlton, who had not acted on it in any meaningful way. Jeff had also warned his then-girlfriend, who worked at the World Trade Center at the time, not to go to work that week; she didn't, but she nevertheless didn't take his warning quite seriously enough and she perished that day. So Jeff has a lot of pent up anger and frustration about what happened back then -- and, of course, the 'zero day' for this new zero-day-bug to unleash its full force is set for ... 11 September.
       Author Russinovich works for software giant Microsoft -- i.e. the folks who produce these vulnerable software programs -- and is known for some of his patches and tools, notably RootkitRevealer, and it's no surprise that the bug he unleashes in his book is a rootkit-based one: that's where it does its terrible damage, and that's why it's so hard to detect (and root out, as it were). As to what's behind the virus, that picture only slowly comes together.
       Jeff notices:
It's malicious and destructive but, from what I can see, it's got no clear purpose.
       But slowly a purpose is recognizable behind it:
It's as if they're after what makes Western civilization what it is.
       Russinovich's message of warning is that we've become so dependent on computers -- and that we are beginning to have too little to fall back on in case something goes wrong with them -- that we've put ourselves in great danger, and that too few people are paying serious-enough attention to the risk of cyber-damage (which is already costing companies and individuals incredible amounts of money). The government, in particular, is slow to act -- and in Zero Day its personified (solely) by bureaucrat George Carlton, who crops up again as the go-to guy who is particularly useless (though for entirely different reasons this time around).
       Russinovich presents his story in relatively short chapters that switch back and forth between where the action is. Some of this is real action -- a huge oil tanker running out of control, for example -- and much of it is Jeff going through computer code and trying to figure out what is wrong, i.e. the sort of thing it is hard make very exciting. The bad guys are also introduced, from the paralyzed Russian hacker who plays a significant role (and provides a vital clue because he stupidly leaves one in his code) to the small-fry who help spread the code to the people behind the whole dastardly plot: all this, alas, is strictly and painfully by-the-numbers out of suspense-thriller-writing-101 -- and, typically, one of the most boring (because also completely superfluous) chapters is the one with the Osama bin Laden cameo.
       Some of what happens is preposterous, especially once the book gets to the time-is-running-out stage, with action in New York, Moscow, and Paris, but the real problem is that so much of the novel is underwritten. Russinovich tries hard to do what writers are supposed to do -- especially in presenting characters and their backstories and motivation -- but it comes across as entirely forced and fake. He's on somewhat surer footing in the criminal scenario he develops, but here too gets himself tangled up in the warnings about inadequate cyber-terrorism prevention, preaching rather than allowing the story to make his case. What proves to be most entertaining are the descriptions of the various computer-failures and their consequences -- though readers will likely be left disappointed that there weren't more, and more extensive ones (there are a few computer-error related deaths, but the law firm going out of business is apparently the one major casualty (well, not counting the grounded oil tanker)) -- which can't really have been Russinovich's intention .....
       Zero Day is a readable pass-time thriller; it's not bad for this sort of thing, but it does feel rather amateur. And for a book that relies so on computer code and offers so many (way too many !) tech/geek-speak chat room transcripts and pretends to make a sincere effort at explaining terminology (like rootkits, etc.) basic errors like noting a ship's "DWT, or deadweight tongue" undermine the whole thing. (It should be tonnage, of course -- 'tongue' ? is there no copy editor in the house ?) The occasional very stilted English -- beyond the chat rooms and the foreigners -- also is confusing: when Jeff says about his grandparents: "They passed before I was graduated from college" it's hard not to wonder whether he isn't some (poorly trained) foreign sleeper agent .....
       Bill Gates (the guy who started the whole Microsoft business) blurbed the book, suggesting that here 'Mark': "is raising awareness of the all-too-real threat of cyberterrorism", and certainly that aspect of the book is meant to be a 'hook' -- but I wonder whether the ultimately cartoonish presentation of the threat, and the all-too-easy way it is all dealt with -- sure, O'Hare traffic control goes down, and there are a few other glitches, but otherwise the Western world gets off close to scot-free -- doesn't actually undermine that purpose: Russinovich may have done better to unleash considerably more havoc (readers likely would have enjoyed that more, too). As presented here, the threat does not feel particularly real or imminent -- which is unfortunate, because, of course, it is.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 April 2011

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Links:

Zero Day: Reviews: Mark Russinovich: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mark Russinovich works for Microsoft.

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© 2011 the complete review

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