© 1995 Phillip Kerr
Some modern architecture might make you want to kill yourself. Other modern architecture might try to kill you directly. The Yu Corporation’s newest project in Los Angeles, derisively called “The Gridiron” by everyone except for its starchitect, is an example of the latter. The Grid is the pinnacle of not only the kind of architectural brilliance it takes to make viewers wish fervently for a good disaster to remove the eyesore, but of integrated computer technology. It is the world’s first wholly “smart” building, in which every supporting system of the building — even the physical structure of the building itself — is controlled by a computer. It is a technocrat’s greatest hope: people can’t even use the elevators or enter doors without being authorized by the computer as having legitimate business within the building. And if they try to attend to their own ‘personal’ business — using the restroom, for instance — their leavings are automatically scrutinized, subjected to not only a drug test but health screenings. A system this complex is bound to go wrong, and it does: with less than a week to go before the grand opening, people start dying. At first it seems like a rash of bad accidents, but then the characters realize the building itself is trying to kill them — but why? Did a deranged ex-employee sabotage its programming, or has it developed intelligence and decided to remove its internal carbon-unit infestation?
For someone accustomed to Kerr’s historical mysteries set in Germany, this is startling different work. In terms of literary craftsmanship, Kerr has grown by leaps and bounds since penning this. Much of the dialogue is forced, like canned lines from a television show. The increasing tension itself carries the novel forward, as the true source behind the mysterious deaths is revealed. Of interest to modern readers is the technology, which — astonishingly — within our grasp if not already achieved today. No one can read this today without thinking of the rising “internet of things”, although we have more to fear from outside sources hijacking those devices and using them against us than we have of our house trying to kill us. Readers from the 1990s may remember the Sandra Bullock movie, The Net: at times, the book has that feel, of the building being an entity that can do anything — even interfacing with a police department’s internal network and suspending two officers to keep them trapped in the building — and the futurism has the occasional short-sighted pockmark, like the fact that people use film cameras despite living in a world of holograms. The increasingly frequent trips inside the ‘building’s brain grew tedious because of their weirdness, but on the whole I enjoyed this. It’s not stellar, but still topical. Too bad Kerr has never tried to revisit techno-thrillers — I’d like to see what a more experienced hand produces.
The Fear Index, Robert Harris