by Ed Piskor (Top Shelf, 2012)
This story has a few good things going for it and a couple of problems that weigh it down; however, when you're dealing with a tech-heavy, computer-related subject about the early days of hacking, you can expect the message to assume greater importance than the story.
In fact, it does seem clear that Wizzywig is not necessarily intended to be a full-on regular story in the sense of the traditional narrative. The story can be bracingly honest and definitely works best when it sticks to the simple facts of life before the Internet became ubiquitous, when hackers were mysterious figures and computer viruses were exotic, new scary things.
Kevin Phenicle is a mistreated, lonely boy being raised by his grandmother. It's the 1970s and computers are a brand-new thing that only phreaks and geeks own. Kevin, already a brilliant lad with a mind for puzzles and algorithms, teaches himself first how to phreak (scam free calls out of the phone company) and later, with his first new computer, adopts the name "Boingthump" and starts out on the rudimentary form of the Internet, hacking into and exploiting systems. Kevin is actually an amalgamation of several hackers (actual term: cracker), social outcasts turned social engineers who ended up on the FBI's Most Wanted List. The neatly divided chapters make it easy to absorb information about cable rewiring, software backdoors, punch cards, the early Bulletin Board System, et al.
The narrative jumps back and forth through time, giving the ending right from the beginning which makes the reading more compelling. Kevin is initially a very sympathetic character, since most of his quest is based on a simple thirst for knowledge and the people who bully him are truly awful. It's easy to see where he acquired his "me against the world" mentality.
But the trip into the psyche of a hacker/cracker isn't quite deep enough. Yes, there is a sense of their alienation and loneliness, and it's true that many of them are motivated by a genuine desire to be social justice warriors; however, many of them also just love to scam and don't care who they hurt. Kevin's pranks become huge problems, such as when he accidentally unloads a virus into the computers of everyone who bought one of his black market video games. His antics cause real fear and concern, and a certain degree of financial damage, which he never seems to acknowledge.
Wizzyzwig's real strength is in its themes of moral ambiguity, justice and technological and informational freedom -- in other words, the "teachable moments" -- which are food for thought as events that unfold today bear a striking resemblance to the fictionalized but still accurate events of the past. It leads to broader thinking on the issues of systemic oppression and personal freedom in an age where we increasingly seem to surrender our privacy without even realizing where and when we parted with it.
The art is great. Piskor has always been able to add great depth to his work with simple touches like holes in walls, bare light bulbs and tattered clothing, simple flourishes that go a long way toward establishing reality and letting the reader know that the phreak sub-culture wasn't glamorous or shiny. Piskor definitely evokes both the mood and the moment.
Where Wizzywig fails is toward the end when the satire becomes too obvious. It's also increasingly difficult to maintain empathy for Kevin and his friends, since their motivations seem to be incredibly selfish, as though they just want to get away with whatever they can. Some of the things Kevin did were downright cruel, and there is a streak of rather pointless misogyny in the story that is really going to turn off some readers. The media coverage angle is cartoonish enough to destroy the subtlety that would have kept me invested in the story. I can see the point Piskor is trying to make with Kevin and I love the information that the book is chock full of but, overall, the story does not do a good job of creating an empathetic character with a good motive.
Still, it's compelling in spite of its lack of cohesion. It's interesting from the point of view that life is not much different today. I walked away from Wizzywig feeling as though I'd gotten a good education for the time I'd put in reading. It's a document of the time, which makes it relevant. Recommended reading for lovers of Ghost in the Wire, Ready, Player One and Little Brother.
6 December 2014
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