Fast Friends jacket

Ulterior Motive, by Daniel Oran (Kensington)

Daniel Oran, a former Microsoft technical wizard, invented the Windows 95 taskbar. So what kind of novel can we expect from the man who taught the world to stop a computer by pressing Start?

A pretty good one, as it turns out, albeit with some qualifications.

Our hero is the aptly monikered John Goodman, a project manager for the giant software company Megasoft, which is headed by the charismatic and visionary Jack Malcolm, or JackM, as he is known. Everybody at Megasoft is generally referred to by their e-mail handles, which is an interesting literary device as well since it makes it surprisingly easy to remember who the various characters are even if their roles are relatively minor. Malcom, not incidentally, is also running for the presidency of the United States, his candidacy having been enhanced by a failed assassination attempt that endeared him to the voting public.

Working very late one night, Megasoft being the world's premier advocate of the "If you don't come in on Saturday, don't bother coming in on Sunday" school of management philosophy, Goodman witnesses an execution-style murder in one of the underground garages of the heavily-secured corporate campus. He dutifully reports it to the authorities, secure in the knowledge that the matter will be properly handled, and only sorry that he isn't able to provide better leads owing to the bad lighting and his own fright during the incident.

But all is not neat and tidy in the world of Megasoft, which encompasses not only the corporation itself but those it is able to influence by virtue of its size and wealth. Goodman finds himself suddenly thrust into a whirlpool of confusion and violence as the murder investigation takes on bizarre overtones. People he thought he could trust are either summarily dispatched or turn out not to be what they seemed in the first place. His only real confidante is a female business journalist love interest who stumbled into the mess by accident and whose own past isn't one hundred percent up to snuff.

The plot as it unfolds is largely reminiscent of the film The Net, not only in its depiction of innocents caught up in intrigue but in its cautionary tale of the degree to which seemingly innocuous technology can, in the hands of the wrong people, have devastating consequences that could never have been imagined by its users. In the case of Ulterior Motive, this conceit is made frighteningly plausible by an insider author who is in a position to know, and manages to tell us without being overtly preachy.

Speaking of insider author: One of the real treats of this novel is the peek at what it must be like to work at the thinly-disguised Microsoft, for the equally thinly-disguised Bill Gates. Not being privy to it myself, I wasn't able to separate out the real from the fanciful, but I suspect that many of the details were lifted straight from the storied Bellevue campus. And whereas most of us (at least those who are not employed by the Department of Justice) tend to turn naught but an amused eye to the machinations of Bill Gates, Oran shows us what it could really mean when the richest man on the planet also controls the emerging lingua franca of that planet's citizens, the software they use on their PCs. I won't give away the plot, but imagine the Trojan Horse with a thermonuclear device in it instead of a bunch of soldiers will and you'll at least have some notion of the scale of the possibilities.

Ulterior Motive doesn't fare quite as well on the literary side as it does as a plot-driven story. The dialogue is somewhat stilted and unnatural, and character development is too abbreviated for us to feel as mortified as we should when bad things happen to nice people. It feels almost as though that element might have gotten edited out in favor of advancing the plot, an unwise trade-off considering that greater empathy for the characters might have made us care more about what happens to them. We know the death of one of John Goodman's best friends was devastating to him because we are told it was, rather than being brought to appreciate it on its face by having been given a better glimpse of their relationship.

The good news is that the writing gets better as the story unfolds. This being a debut novel, and Oran obviously being a pretty bright guy, he seemed to have learned as he went along. That's good news, because the breakneck pace of the last portion of the book would be much less tolerant of the kinds of dissonances that might detract from the action than the beginning is. If anything, it's a little too fast, and the wrap-up occurs so quickly that you might feel as though you were deprived of the pleasure that a more patient and detailed telling might have afforded you. My own experience tells me that thriller editors have little patience with patience. They also have very little respect for readers, whom they seem to think are all subway straphangers with the attention spans of gnats and who will discard a book if there's even one descriptive sentence that doesn't directly advance the action.

Despite some stylistic shortcomings, Ulterior Motives is an involving thriller with a highly relevant and topical warning message worth paying attention to. I've little doubt — and a lot of hope — that we're going to be seeing more good works from this promising author.

                                                                - lee gruenfeld

 

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