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The Fox by Frederick Forsyth

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on October 23, 2018

The writer who started the trend of giving villains a cool nickname with The Day of the Jackal has returned with The Fox. Except that the Fox isn’t a villain. He’s an autistic teen hacker who is pretty much indifferent to, or intimidated by, the non-digital world. In that regard, Frederick Forsyth is following the trend of creating a hacker with an emotional disorder. The Fox, we soon learn, is the best hacker in the world.

After months of investigation, a harmless breach of the NSA database is traced to a house in a suburb north of London. The Americans, certain that the hacker will be protected by armed terrorists, want to send in SEALs with guns blazing, but the British insist on a more subtle, clandestine operation to occupy the house. Thus they manage to avoid killing the Fox, a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome, and his innocent family.

The Fox simply wanted to meet the challenge of breaking into an NSA’s database, but the Americans claimed he caused millions of dollars of “damage,” meaning it will cost millions to fix the flaw that he exploited and exposed but did not create. As is often true of cybercrimes that do not involve theft, the damage the Fox caused was to egos, not cybersystems.

Forsyth thus sets up a vulnerable teenager as a standard but sympathetic character. Wielding flattery as a weapon, Sir Adrian Weston convinces the American president (who is easily manipulated by flattery) to let Britain hang onto the Fox, where he will become a key player in Operation Troy. One of his first tasks proves to be supremely embarrassing to Russia, which prompts a call for revenge against the Fox. He later takes on Iran, North Korea (twice) and Russia again.

Forsyth portrays the United States (or more particularly Trump, although not by name) as extraordinarily gullible in trusting North Korea, making decisions based on ego (including the desire for a Nobel peace prize) rather than facts. Some readers might disagree with that assessment. Those readers may find themselves disliking The Fox for political reasons (assuming that they understand Forsyth is disparaging their favorite president). On the other hand, readers who get their news from a wide range of apolitical sources will likely regard Forsyth’s portrayal of the administration as spot on.

Forsyth’s political digs at America are amusing, but the plot comes across as more fantasy than thriller. In a fairly nonviolent way, the Fox manages to do serious but lasting damage to three totalitarian regimes. If only it were so, the world would be a safer place today. Yet the plot leads to those results without generating much tension (certainly nothing like Forsyth has managed in his better novels). Forsyth injects some action scenes as Britain’s best are assigned to protect the Fox from snipers and assault teams, but their success depends on luck as much as skill. This is far from an edge-of-the seat thriller, although Forsyth’s novels always move with good pace.

Wesley is portrayed as a typically competent strategist, an exemplar of British reserve, while the Fox is an insular hacker stereotype. A couple of collateral characters have a subdued romance, but nothing particularly surprising happens during the course of the novel. It is fun, however, to imagine that one autistic kid (with some stalwart Brits on his side) could make the world such a better place. I find it hard to dislike such an optimistic novel.


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