If you hadn’t heard, former President William Jefferson Clinton and well-established mass-production author James Patterson have collaborated on a novel titled The President is Missing. The book is a political cyber-thriller of sorts, the second such book from a member of the Clinton family—that is, if you count Hillary Clinton’s What Happened as one. And just as with with Ms. Clinton’s book, The President is Missing gives shout outs to Russian hacking groups, mentioning Fancy Bear by name.
The President is Missing is, however, a work of fiction. At 513 pages in hardcover, it’s slightly slimmer than the recently-released Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General report on the FBI’s conduct during the Clinton email investigation, and certainly better paced—with Patterson’s trademarked five-to-10 page chapters cutting it up for easy digestion. The prose is largely marked by Patterson’s hand as well, but there are places where Clinton’s voice pushes through (and not always for the better)—particularly in the passages of first-person narration from the protagonist, President Jon Duncan, which are laden with Democratic talking points and the moral weight of every presidential decision.
The plot, in brief, is this: a Democratic president from a southern state is on the verge of facing an impeachment (sound familiar?) in the midst of a national security crisis. A terrorist mastermind has managed to plant “wiper” malware in every computer in the United States. Racing against time, the president disguises himself, exits the White House through a secret tunnel, and meets in person with the hacker who helped distribute the malware while a crack mercenary hit squad led by a pregnant Bosnian sniper attempts to take the hacker and President Duncan out.
From there, suspension of disbelief becomes even more difficult. Duncan—a former Army Ranger, a Gulf War veteran unlucky enough to be captured and tortured by the Republican Guard after a helicopter crash, a former minor-league ball player and former governor of North Carolina with a rare blood disorder and a tragically deceased wife—seems to be created from a combination of Clinton DNA and wish fulfillment and Patterson’s random character generator. If you are not of the Clintonesque Democrat persuasion, Duncan’s narrative will at time prompt you to launch the book or e-reader across the room with its unvarnished plugs for raising the minimum wage, gun control, and the like—especially in the book’s final chapter, a victorious address to a joint session of Congress.
But I digress. I am here to talk about the cybers.
It’s not that Patterson and Clinton have not researched their topic. All the catchphrases are there, and the pair has clearly had research assistants gather them together. “Fancy Bear,” “WannaCry,” “wiper,” and other relatively recent cyber-words are put together in contexts that make them seem like there is a hint of understanding behind their usage.
But the malware at the center of the plot—a magically cloaked virus named Suliman.exe, named for the head of the vague not-an-Islamic-terror organization “Sons of Jihad”—is deus ex machina and McGuffin all in one. Developed by one hacker and spread by another, it is seemingly invisible and yet out in the open, built to go off at a specific time but booby-trapped to activate across the whole country if just one person tries to delete it. I picture a film version of this book including two people at the same keyboard trying to key in possible kill-switch phrases as the clock ticks down on the wiping of every phone, PC, server and IoT device in the nation.
In other words, this is James Patterson-style cyber. And yes, there is a bit where everyone is shouting password guesses to try and stop the malware from detonating, as the Bosnian sniper and her crew attempt to ambush the president.
There are plenty of twisty side plots. Will President Duncan’s blood disorder cause him to become incapacitated? Who is the traitorous insider within the White House who is using information from the hackers obtained via WhatsApp for her own political ends? Will President Duncan order a retributive strike on Russia (because, obviously, the SOJ is working for Russia, via a cutout or two)? Will the vice president persuade six Democratic members of the Senate to vote for impeachment and take over herself? Will the president and the Israeli prime minister finally get past that sexual tension?
Sorry. You’ll have to find the answers for yourself, if you have the appetite for that sort of thing.