Book Review : Zero Day by Mark Russinovich

Zero DayI’ve long followed the output and talent of Mark Russinovich, as any self-respecting Windows tech should know and use his Winternals and Sysinternals utilities. I don’t know what i would have done in some situations in the past without Process Explorer, Process Monitor, and all the other PsTools. Needless to say, Mark knows what he’s talking about in the world of computers.

I was surprised and intrigued recently when catching up on a Scott Hanselman podcast, he was the interviewee, on topics including his new novel.  Scott seemed genuinely surprised too that Mark had moved into this area, and also impressed with the way he’s managed to bridge the often ‘huge’ gulf between normal life and techiedom.

Zero Day is Mark’s first novel. An action thriller, centered around high technology crime (published in 2011), and he’s followed that up with Trojan Horse; further developing the main characters in the first book.

Zero Day features Jeff Aitkin as the lead character. A technical wizard, specialising in computer security, but seemingly normal in many ways that non-technical people think strange for a geek. He’s fit and good looking.  In the interview, Mark admits Jeff is based on him. 🙂

What’s interesting first of all, is that the novel was even published, as the subject matter simply wouldn’t have had mass appeal even just a few short years ago. The exploding popularity of the internet, and its crossover into normal people’s daily lives has obviously made the story more accessible than ever before. Also, the subject matter of coordinated cyber attacks was something even Mark himself thought may have happened for real before he finished the book; making the story less relevant. I guess he’s thankful in more ways than one we’ve survived up to now.

The story starts with the seemingly isolated virus infection of a company’s network, in the midst of a rather racy opening scene. Mark doesn’t hold back on language and imagery to paint the picture. I don’t know why I was surprised by this, but I guess that helps the book to sell.  Maybe it was also an attempt to quickly set the tone that this is not just a book for techheads.

We quickly then learn of many other, and varied incidents, involving computers in all sorts of places, and applications. Some with fatal consequences. What follows is a well constructed plot that explores not only the technical detail of viruses, exploits, triggers and rootkits, but the human factors that motivate individuals away from doing ‘good’, and the ways they justify their actions to themselves.

Clearly the author has done his research on many topics. The technical stuff is a given, but the characters involved are from many different backgrounds, explored well, and their back story plausible in most cases. Jeff’s own previous connection with the government, and the events leading up to 9/11 is interesting, albeit quite convenient for the story line.

My only real character comment is that the story seems to centre around a small group of very attractive computer people.  Jeff finds himself surprised when his new client is attractive, as his previous experience was that of the few women in IT, very few of them were attractive. His emerging sidekick and love interest also just happened to be a whizzkid, and complete knockout. I guess they’d better get moving on the movie!

Things develop, and it seems that this thing is bigger than individual viruses and hackers. The characters start to connect in unexpected ways, often unknown to them, and it’s a good rollercoaster ride across the world, as the characters chase the ‘cure’.  But – would it make any difference anyway on Zero Day?

Whether enough loose ends were resolved at the end of the book I’m still deciding, but that may be another reason to read Trojan Horse.

Being someone who doesn’t read many novels, I enjoyed this a lot as the story and technical detail held my interest throughout. Also, like the information age itself, the book is split into bitesize chunks that move quickly between the various storylines. I found myself wondering which thread I was going to join() again next (pardon the developer pun).

Trojan Horse - the bookI’m looking forward to getting into the next Jeff Aitkin adventure, Trojan Horse, which is also now available.

Check out the rest of Mark’s work on his site