Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, by David Shafer

This epic tale of a future dominated by computers and Big Corpo is pacy, confident and accessible, says Peter Murphy

Sat, Jun 13, 2015, 00:26


Book Title:
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot


David Shafer

Penguin Books

Guideline Price:

Speaking about Julian Gough’s forthcoming novel, Infinite, Picador associate publisher and editor Ravi Mirchandani recently opined that “some of the most excitingly original serious writing at present is being done at the edges of genre”. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the debut novel by Portland-based writer David Shafer, is a case in point, a fine example of what happens when big, brainy ideas are successfully mated with good old-fashioned plot thrust.

The title (WTF in the Nato phonetic alphabet) might suggest some literary hipster weaned on avant-garde ironists, but Shafer’s true peers are story-weavers such as Neal Stephenson – particularly Snowcrash’s combination of action-thriller MSG, prose roughage, and high-concept cosmology. In terms of its themes, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is very now: IT oligarchies, shadow governments, a secret second internet, clandestine data-harvesting systems. The book proceeds on a three-track narrative and is global in scale, shifting location from Burma to London, from the Pacific Northwest to Northside Dublin. (Shafer, once resident in the capital, knows his Stonybatter from his Arbour Hill: there’s even a key scene set in the IKEA store near Dublin airport).

Surveillance conspiracy

The main players are Leila, a beleaguered NGO operative who, while trying to extricate a shipment of medical supplies from bureaucratic lock-up near the Burmese/Chinese border, sees something she shouldn’t have seen and gets herself sucked into a pan-national surveillance conspiracy. There’s Leo, a job-hopping substance abuser whose pot-fuelled blog spewings have led him into the deepest labyrinths of corporate Illuminati hypotheses, only to discover that chronic dope paranoia does in fact equate with ultimate awareness. And there’s Mark, a rich-too-quick self-help writer with a taste for coke, booze and expensive restaurants, faced with a brutal deadline and the moral dilemma of a proposed Faustian pact with agents of the Plutocratic New World Order. All three are unwittingly snared in an epic Good-versus-Evil showdown between a hacktivist outlaw brotherhood and a rapacious Bilderberger-type elite.

Some writers possess an innate voodoo that keeps readers turning pages. Stephen King has it, Thomas Pynchon doesn’t. King’s genius is that he bonds you with his cast before introducing the supernatural stuff. Shafer pulls the same trick, with Big Corpo as the bogeyman. He makes you care for his characters, even the ones with First World problems, while threading chewy techno-philosophical ideas through stretches of masterfully maintained suspense, paid off by big event-driven set-pieces (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot sometimes reads like William Gibson indulging his love of Le Carré). More, he can return the weariest soul to that glorious state of teenage binge-reading, when you’d stay up until two in the morning, regardless of the next day’s obligations, simply to find out what happens next.

Dark moments

And, like all good speculative/ allegorical storytellers, Shafer makes us think about the world we inhabit, and fear for its future. In its darker moments, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot prophesies a Dickian universe where all info-technology becomes not just wireless, but self-regenerating and organic. In this new world, people are not so much computer-dependant as computer-obligated: those who reject the online grid are excluded from the social eco-system. Following a techno-meltdown orchestrated by shadowy feudal lords, the system’s gatekeepers will be able to charge citizens a king’s ransom for access to their own bank details, house deeds and even genetic coding. The end-result? A society in which you have to pay dearly in order to merely exist.

The following is not the novel’s flashiest passage, but it’s the one most frequently quoted in reviews, probably because it strikes a chord with anyone unnerved by the notion that our work, commerce, and increasingly our social lives, are mediated by mechanisms we barely understand:

“Why didn’t she know more about computers? That knowledge suddenly seemed more important than feminist theory or 80s’ song lyrics, both of which she was well acquainted with. Computers had risen around her all her life, like a lake sneakily subsuming more and more arable land, but she’d never learned to write code or poke behind the icons or anything like that. She was like a medieval peasant confounded by books and easily impressed by stained glass.”

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is, at 400 pages-plus, a substantial novel, but your reviewer devoured it in a weekend. It’s pacey but not hasty, confident but never clever-clever, its prose hi-res but accessible. The book’s only flaw is more of a quirk: the last act somehow manages to be both gratifying and inconclusive, as if setting us up for a sequel. Maybe Shafer’s planning his generation’s version of The Stand. Next time the Fiction Is Dead brigade demand to know why novels deserve a place in popular culture, the constant reader might well cite this book as Exhibit A for the defence.

Peter Murphy is the author of John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River (Faber)