Sockpuppet by Matthew Blakstad

Review published on May 19, 2017.

This is best characterised as a political/techno thriller, though it could also arguably be filed away as a warning for our times. The plot revolves around a fictional social media platform, Parley (think Twitter as the descriptions of Parley are very similar to Twitter), which at its heart has a number of bot accounts. Users interact with each other and these bots; they compete for the attention of the bots. One such bot account is sic-girl, the creation of one of Parley’s key programmers, Dani Farr. Meanwhile, government minister Bethany Lehrer is unveiling a flagship programme, the Digital Citizen initiative. In return for allowing a private corporation access to all their private data – medical records, etc. – people will be able to access services much faster and more efficiently.

The trouble starts when those people taking part in the Digital Citizen trial have their computers locked down, little piggy emoji’s plaguing their screens. Then sic-girl starts leaking damaging information about Bethany Lehrer and hinting that the entire Digital Citizen database has been hacked – all that private material in the hands of hackers. The police get involved, naturally assuming that Dani Farr is sic-girl, that she’s behind the leaks and the hacks. But she insists that she’s not, that sic-girl is just a stupid bot.

What’s going on? Is Dani a hacker? Has sic-girl graduated from bot to fully conscious artificial intelligence? Or has someone else subverted the bot? Is Digital Citizen an Orwellian nightmare as some suggest, or just a means of making all our lives easier in the interconnected, 21st Century? Things are complicated by a cast of supporting characters. The chilling head of the tech company set to run Digital Citizen; the charming PR guy Dani has always had a thing for; her fellow coders in Parley, all not quite as talented as her but anyone off which could have pulled off the hack.

Sockpuppet keeps us guessing until the end and certainly makes one think about the consequences the technological revolution holds in stall for us. With the internet of things just around the corner and the age of big data still in it’s infancy, the author touches on something that is all too current. But if anything, I found Sockpuppet a little too tame. A few years ago, I read a frightening non-fiction book, Future Crimes by Marc Goodman. A former adviser to the FBI, Goodman looked at the trends in cybercrime and cyberwar and predicted how the bad actors would make their living in the brave new world we are living in. It made for terrifying reading and the world of Sockpuppet is benign in comparison. Perhaps because of this, I found Matthew Blakstad’s novel dragged a bit. I felt he could have shaved a hundred pages or so and still told the same story.

All things considered, Sockpuppet is a great debut and I certainly will read more from this author. In fact, I purchased his e-book prequel novella as soon as I had finished Sockpuppet. From what I understand, he is hard at work on a sequel. If I had one suggestion to make for the continuation of the series, it’s for him to take more risk: delve into the darker aspects of cybercrime and cyberwarfare and pull out the real horrors that lie within.

James Pierson 3/5

Sockpuppet by Matthew Blakstad
Hodder Paperbacks 9781473624740 pbk Jan 2017

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