Bull, by Douglas Rushkoff

A world of hacking and fast-tracking
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The Independent Culture

To misquote L P Hartley, the internet is a foreign country: they do things differently there. Unsurprisingly, then, the information superhighway has created fresh and contentious material for writers with scientific leanings. Plenty of authors, such as Simon Singh and Po Bronson, have penned studies of web-orientated developments but few have managed to weave an engaging fictional narrative into the fray.

Following The Ecstasy Club, his well-received fictional debut, Douglas Rushkoff's second novel, Bull, succeeds by peppering the thriller structure with the kind of literary experimentalism currently in vogue with young, metropolitan American writers.

In Jamie Cohen, Rushkoff has created a protagonist who is a wonderful combination of Heinz Wolff, Woody Allen and one of John Grisham's fresh-faced heroes. He grows up in the down-at-heel New York suburb of Queens where his computer skills win him entry to the Jamaican Kings, a high school gang of renegade hackers. His father, a Rabbi, tries guiding him down the road to spiritual sustenance. Religion, ambition and rebellion vie for Jamie's soul. Taking the blame for one of his cohort's e-mail bugs, Jamie is ostracised from the clan and sent into a very public form of rehab: condemning the evils of hacking to Oprah Winfrey and her daytime audience. However, the exposure wins him an Ivy League scholarship and a fast-track position with Morehouse & Linney, a plush Wall Street investment bank.

Jamie's allegiances become even more conflicted in the cut-throat environment of the Nasdaq traders and it's not long before he's hallucinating. He sees bulls on the trading floor: all suited, booted and steaming. The tension is accentuated by Rushkoff's natty cyber-centric phrases (screens disintegrate in a "Sega-cum-Kandinsky" blur). Although employed to appraise emerging internet enterprises, Jamie is actually stuck in "the business of business". "You get people to invest in an idea," explains a colleague. "Then get out before anyone tries to do it for real." When, separately, two ex-Jamaican Kings contact him, Jamie's world begins to crumble. Greco now works for Synapticom, a cult-like software company with a dress code of slippers and green robes. Jude, in contrast, remains a maverick; compiling new hacks and programs from home. They both need Jamie's help: the former to launch Synapticom's hypnotic e-commerce algorithm (as manipulative as the Matrix) and the latter to invest in TeslaNet, a revolutionary, power-to-the-people system which connects computers through the Earth itself. Commerce versus access. What follows is a twisting morality play where loyalties and dot coms fall in unison.

While occasionally straining under its own ambition, Bull is consistently inventive. In the preface, we learn that Jamie's story, though written in 2008, wasn't discovered until 2200. Footnotes explain terms and sentiments for a 23rd-century reader. These simultaneously translate jargon for technophobes and suggest how the world will progress over the next two centuries. Many of them are hilarious. We learn that Who Wants to be a Millionaire? transmutes from a television show into a fully fledged church and that Feng Shui was invented by "an interior designer from San Diego". Rushkoff has investigated the changing value of technology and in the process produced a compassionate, funny, human tale set in the most unlikely of environments.