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A Review of "Terms of Use"

If Terms of Use had come out twenty years ago, it almost certainly would have been called a "cyber-thriller."  Fortunately, we live in an era where the Internet is no longer spooky, so we can just call this a "regular thriller."


I'm very conflicted about this book.  There's a lot of good and bad.

I'll start with the good.  The premise is interesting and well-realized.  Scott Allan Morrison describes some very realistic software that all exists now (to some extent) and then shows how it could be abused in a variety of ways.  The overall conflict is believable and actually ties in perfectly to my earlier post this week about how sometimes it feels like my opinions aren't necessarily my own.

I also really liked how he explores world-wide ramifications of seemingly innocuous things.  A guy who can manipulate the pricing of various metals and minerals goes from being "boring desk jockey" to "puppet master."  The CEO of a social networking site goes from "money-hungry dweeb" to "potential Bond villain."

And the interconnection of the various players is a great play off of the interconnection of a social networking site.  Just like Circles, the Facebook stand-in in the story, the characters are all linked to each other though seemingly minor affiliations that build up to an impossibly vast whole.  It's very well-constructed and impressive.

The story structure is amazing and the pacing is excellent.  This is definitely a page-turner.

The bad?  Well, it's just not all that well-written at times.  There are entire chapters that feel like they were added at the last minute and nobody gave them a second pass to take out some clunky wording.  Certain key phrases pop out from overuse - take a shot every time somebody "regards" something, for example.  The characters largely feel like cliches and the moments that should be quiet, emotional reflections are instead bombastic and wrapped up in larger-than-life melodrama.

Consider the protagonist: Sergio Mansour, an extraordinary programmer with a difficult past.  Sergio's father was killed in front him by gangsters when he was a kid and he had his ear slashed off as a warning not to tell the police.  Yikes.  Really?

It's not that I'm against Sergio having a tragic back story, but he doesn't really need it.  Whenever this comes up, it feels like a distraction rather than an added layer of character complexity.  I do appreciate that Morrison tries to tie that past into Sergio's present day reluctance to indulge in violence, but why?  Most people are reluctant to indulge in violence.  Not hurting people is one of the basic precepts of being human.  We don't need to have a traumatic childhood past to know not to kill.

(Mild spoilers in this paragraph.)  The melodrama also plays a heavy role in my least favorite part of the book, where Malina, Sergio's romantic interest, reveals that her sister was stalked and killed by somebody who took advantage of Circles' poor and misleading privacy settings.  Thematically it works well because it's another example of how software - and its eponymous terms of use - can be exploited to horrendous ends.  But the way it's introduced is so clunky that it feels like you're being smacked over the head with a message-hammer.  (End of minor spoilers.)

Despite my complaints, I will say this: right now is the perfect time to read the book, because it deals with a close election and the various ways that voters could be manipulated.  Undoubtedly the timing of the book's release was no coincidence, but what makes it more fascinating is that this election is totally bucking all expectations so far.  So that means one of two things:

1) Either the premise of Terms of Use is inherently flawed because the election it describes is based on an outdated model that will no longer exist after the general election this year; or

2) The conspiracy from Terms of Use is happening right now and Trump is behind it all.

Bottom line: I'll give the book a slightly better than neutral rating and say that I lightly recommend it.  If it was either a little bit subtler and more dramatic or a little more over-the-top and comedic, I'd have enjoyed it much more.  Instead it feels just a tad over-long and over-worked.  Still, not a bad way to spend a few hours.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5