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Book Forum: Novels   |    
Transmission: A Novel
Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:2411-2412. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.12.2411
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Washington, D.C.

By Hari Kunzru. New York, Plume Penguin Group, 2005, 288 pp., $14.00 (paper).

As a biological virus infects a cell, producing copies of itself, a computer virus is a self-replicating program that attaches itself to a program within the hardware of a computer’s operating system and takes it over for its own purposes. Some viruses are delayed and act as a bomb, either a time-bomb that comes out at given moment, or a logic-bomb, which comes out when the computer executes a given operation, The computer virus analogy is complete, in that it infects computers through their e-mail connections, just as a human virus is spread through any entrance to the body. A virus is part of another program, but a worm, on the other hand, is a self-contained program that can exploit the phenomenon of transmission. Thus the name of this fascinating novel about a computer programmer from India who escapes to Silicon Valley from his cramped apartment in New Delhi.

Arjun Mehta, one of millions of aspiring technocrats clamoring to fill the thousands of positions generated by the computer revolution, received his Bachelor of Science at North Okhla Institute of Technology. He succeeds in winning his dream job after meeting an unctuous and supercilious headhunter at a job fair for U.S. firms. He is transported from his Third World warren to the paradise of the West Coast of the United States, where Silicon Valley is booming with instant millionaires of the information age.

Thomas Friedman, of the New York Times, expounded a thesis that the Internet has resulted in globalization and the leveling of the playing field for technology (1). An Indian in Bangalore, a technician in Shanghai, and a computer hacker in Moscow are equal when it comes to access to information and technology. When a student at Yale calls the help line to deal with a problem on his laptop, he may be speaking to a consultant in India who has been trained to speak in an American idiom.

When a small hospital in the Midwest cannot find a local radiologist to be on-call in the night, it can transmit magnetic resonance images of the brain to a radiologist on the Asian subcontinent to get an instant reading for a trauma patient in the emergency room. Of course, no one knows the credentials of that radiologist, where he trained, if she is board-certified (although he may have gone to Harvard), or if she has a medical license. Electronic transfers of money from financial institutions and brokerages flash around the world faster than gold can be moved from one holding area to another in vaults beneath the streets of the city of Zurich. Scientific discoveries may be posted, reviewed, replicated, or refuted with the speed of a keystroke from M.I.T. to Berkeley to Taipei.

This amazing electronic revolution has grown exponentially faster than the opening of the New World by the sailing ship, the opening of the American West by the railroad, or the destruction of the Iron Curtain by MTV and CNN. The children of the current generation are more likely to turn to Wikipedia.com than to Encyclopedia Britannica in the library. Wikipedia allows for postings and modification by anyone, allowing the billions of people on earth to share information, much like the billions of neurons in the brain that connect through synapses. Our computer servers and web-cams and e-mails interconnect us into one huge fabric of humanity.

This entire electronic network makes one wonder if Lewis Thomas (2) was right when he suggested that human beings may simply be cells in a larger organism and that humanity’s delusion of individuality is only a dream. Science fiction is no longer a genre less than "literature" but has become mainstream. As Jules Verne predicted space travel, Williamson’s Seetee Ship(3) predicted antimatter, and Jonathan Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider(4) anticipated and named computer viruses, it was inevitable that someone would write a novel about destructive software (malware).

Hari Kunzru is the highly acclaimed author of The Impressionist(5), also a novel about a man from India, a Dickensian journey reminiscent of Oliver Twist or Great Expectations, which was short-listed for a number of international prizes. Transmission, on the other hand, is as up-to-date as an iPod and more amusing than TiVo. One need not be a computer nerd to be swept along by Kunzru’s skewering prose. No knowledge of programming is necessary for the reader to become immersed in pop culture and social satire. Arjun Mehta’s team leader observes,

What my team has come to realize is that in the 21st century the border is not just a line on the earth anymore. It is so much more than that. It is about status. It is about opportunity. Sure, you are either inside or outside, but you could be on the inside and still be outside, right?

Transmission, of course, refers to a computer worm, which Mehta releases on the world in a misguided attempt to save his job. He generates a destructive virus in the hope of achieving acclaim by eliminating it and thereby proving his worth to his employers. Like the man who introduced the rabbit to Australia, Mehta falls victim to the law of unintended consequences when his computer worm has an Indian movie actress dancing on computer screens the world over.

This is a love story, a social satire, and a book about justice, vengeance, and fate. There is a journalistic quality to the prose, and the dialog may have been overheard from a cell phone conversation in a public place. Kunzru knows how to tell a story that is entertaining yet poignant, full of psychological insight. The Indian characters, the California characters, and the fantasy land of Indian movie making in "Bollywood" are all expertly drawn and meshed together like the gears in the latest BMW. It would not be surprising if the reader hesitates a moment before opening his next e-mail attachment after reading this exciting novel.

Kunzru has succeeded in writing a technological love story wrapped in a cloak-and-dagger thriller, a style reminiscent of Ludlum, with the wit of Sedaris or Celine. The computer revolution is not about computing, it is about communication. It is about communication as commerce, which is now less about production than about distribution. Hari Kunzru has raised the comic novel to its psychological endpoint in this book in which the entertainment is wrapped in elegant prose. I would not presume to predict the topic of his next novel, but I look forward to reading it.

Friedman TC: The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century. New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005
Thomas L: Medusa and the Snail. New York, Viking Press, 1979
Williamson J: Seetee Ship. New York, Lancer, 1951
Brunner J: The Shockwave Rider. New York, Random House, 1995
Kunzru H: The Impressionist. New York, Dutton, 2002


Friedman TC: The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century. New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005
Thomas L: Medusa and the Snail. New York, Viking Press, 1979
Williamson J: Seetee Ship. New York, Lancer, 1951
Brunner J: The Shockwave Rider. New York, Random House, 1995
Kunzru H: The Impressionist. New York, Dutton, 2002

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