Cyber thriller writer Thomas Waite has a new book out, and it couldn’t come at a better time.
Out on Tuesday, 26th May, Trident Code takes on what Waite describes as a trifecta of cyber terrorism, ecological terrorism and nuclear submarines, following a week where scientists have reported unforeseen ice loss in Antarctica and a now-arrested British submariner warned that the Trident submarine weapon system was a “disaster waiting to happen”.
The second in Waite’s Lana Elkins series, following Lethal Code, Trident Code is a thrilling near-future tale, showing a world where cyber threats risk far more than a single city.
We caught up with Waite to learn more about the book and how possible the events they chart really are.
Cyber terrorism and ecological terrorism make for an interesting combination in Trident Code. Why did you choose to combine these two threats?
After I had finished Lethal Code and started to think about the next novel in the series, which is now Trident Code, I was searching for a unique story with an unusual terrorist threat, and I was actually – of all places – watching television.
Probably some authors won’t admit that they get ideas from television but I don’t mind, because it’s true.
I was watching CNN one night last year, and I remember there was a short segment on ISIS; there was a segment on the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program; a recent report about a hacker trying to penetrate a US government agency, and there was a program about an attack on a very vulnerable part of our environment.
There was a report about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and there was a NASA animation of Antarctica’s most threatened glaciers, showing the ice draining into the Amundsen Sea and an ominous warning that it could result in more than 10 feet of sea level rise.
But of course it added in a century or two, and that triggered the thought: well what if you could make that happen sooner, and much sooner?
So that, in combination, led me to think, wow, no terrorist act, not even a nuclear bomb set up in a major city, could so unalterably change the Earth, and if you could make that happen quickly, that would be great. From a plot standpoint, that was gold.
I realised that climate change could actually become a weapon of choice for terrorists. I looked at what countries might fare relatively well with a particular type of climate cataclysm, and Russia stands out when you do the research.
So I had two kinds of terrorism for my novel: cyber and environmental, and I wanted to got for the trifecta, because that’s always the big winner, right?
So that’s when the nuclear submarine with Trident II missiles cruised into my novel, and I had my story.
I understand you spoke to a number of experts for Trident Code. Who did you speak to, and how did they react?
For all my novels I do. I had a career in the technology sector, so I’m comfortable and familiar with technology and I’d been involved with various companies, including cybersecurity firms, but when I think about a book like this I do a lot of primary and secondary research.
Research only gets you so far, so for Trident Code I consulted some leading experts
Like other writers I go to the Internet, I read authoritative books and articles. But research only gets you so far, so for Trident Code I consulted some leading experts: CEOs of some major cybersecurity firms, and former and current senior government officials.
For example the head of the FBI’s cyber terrorism unit, and I benefited a lot from a retired admiral and a from a vice president of the Chiefs of Staff, as well as a submarine warfare expert.
They thought it was sinisterly… creative. And to my pleasure, they were very willing to assist, although in some cases, particularly the former government folks, they wanted to make sure that they didn’t disclose anything that was confidential or top secret. In some cases they also didn’t want any attribution.
So I’ve acknowledged some of them in my acknowledgements, but some not, for a variety of reasons – mostly policy reasons, a couple of them are currently in their positions and didn’t want to do that.
But it was vetted – it was cleared – with the “authorities”.
Rapid sea level rise plays a key role in Trident Code’s premise – is it a threat you see literature in general exploring more?
I think there’s a trend in literature, particularly genre fiction, that is – even more than normal – leading writers to basically blur the line further between fiction and reality. I see that happening; I think there could be reasons for that.
When you try to write novels that are truly different and unique I think you cast your net wider, so to speak, looking at current events. For me, the piece about that was on the news about pending, although relatively long-term environmental catastrophe, is very different, and I worked hard to come up with the trifecta that I mentioned earlier.
I would expect other authors to do the same. Now for pure science fiction, you could do that a lot more easily. I try to create essentially near future thrillers that are well-researched and based in a reality that the reader can relate to, as scary as it could be.
What are your thoughts on the way people view cyber threats?
Quite honestly, I write cyber thrillers, and I’m still concerned and rather surprised that the vast majority – I can only speak for the folks I know largely here in the US – of people really don’t understand the risks that cyber warfare and cyber attacks pose to a nation.
They tend to think of it as only an individual problem, namely hacked emails, credit card data, that sort of thing, or going after retailers.
But we’re looking now at very sophisticated industrial-level attacks; the most famous one that some people know is Stuxnet.
When I do my research I come up with a lot of stories, whether it’s Stuxnet, or you may be aware of a steel mill in Germany that was attacked last year that caused physical destruction.
When I look at those things, and the vast majority of people I talk to, even frankly some of the people I interview, aren’t very aware of those and they aren’t really connecting the dots about what the risk really is.
So just as the Sony hack put the hacking of emails and the threat into the public minds of most Americans, I think it’s unfortunate, but it’s probably going to take something like that, and that far-reaching, to get people to understand what nation states are doing and what the threat to industrial controls and other important parts of our infrastructure could be.
Do you feel you help inform people about cyber threats?
I hope so! I have to walk a line between treating it too lightly and not credibly in my novels and going so deep that it’s sort of inside baseball, as the expression goes, and you lose the readers and they’re not interested, their eyes glaze over and they close the book.
It’s probably going to take something that far-reaching for people to understand what nation states are doing and what the threat to our infrastructure could be
So I try to walk that line between educating and entertaining at the same time, but yes, I am trying to do that.
Usually my author note praises people who are fighting these kinds of crimes and has a warning for the public, and certainly when I talk to people or give interviews like this I mention that, because I think it’s important.
How possible do you think the primary events in Trident Code are?
I think it’s possible. If I thought of it, I can’t imagine no one else has.
Now, as any thriller writer does, I’ve put together an exciting story that would require an enormous amount of sophistication and sort of a worst-case scenario, just like I did with Lethal Code, but I think it’s plausible.
I’m careful, so for example in my book a submarine is hijacked, but it’s not technically hacked, I call it hacked because what they’ve done is they’ve hacked into the communications systems, but nuclear submarines are very secure, and many of their systems aren’t connected to the Internet, obviously, so you have to create that vérité between kinetic or regular warfare, as well as cyber warfare.
Your main villain, Oleg, is very unusual. Why did you choose that character?
[Laughs] Well, in my life I’ve read a lot of thrillers and whenever there’s been a Russian villain, and it’s very classic, they’re a Cold War villain, and it’s become almost a stereotype of what the evil Russian Cold War villain looks like.
I wanted to do something different. I write cyber thrillers so I wanted to create what I call a Code War villain, and when I thought about that, it occurred to me that that person is going to be very different; they’re going to be younger, they’re going to be very contemporary, and they’re going to have technology skills that are never mentioned in the classic Cold War era, certainly not by the central villain.
I wanted to create what I call a Code War villain
So I decided that i would create Oleg, and in all honesty he became much larger than life, and took on a much larger role in my book than I had originally envisioned for him, but I really loved it.
One of the reviewers said he’s the villain that you love to hate, and that’s really what I was going for. so I’m glad that people see it that way.
A number of people of people who have read my book with the advanced copies have commented about his character and how interesting it is. It’s kind of sad to say you love him, but you do love to hate him because he’s just so despicable!
The contrast with him is his Russian counterpart Galina – why did you choose her?
I wanted to show a female character – Lana’s the protagonist and readers who are following the series know about her, but I wanted to introduce a female character that has a developmental arc throughout the novel.
So in the early parts of the novel the reader will probably view her as very young and innocent and sweet, and perhaps naive, and over the course of the novel she matures, she becomes stronger and more determined, she’s battling for her daughter, who has leukemia, and, without ruining the novel, she understands and figures out what Oleg’s been up to.
He’s led her along because her intentions were noble from an environmental standpoint with the theft of the ambient air capture device, and towards the end of the novel she ends up playing a central role in Oleg’s downfall and stopping the impending catastrophe.
I gather you’re planning to continue the series after Trident Code. Is there anything you can tell us about the sequel?
Yes I am. I’m actually working on my next one right now.
I don’t like to give away too much, but I will say that in the new one, what I’m doing, and this will be a first, is Lana is looking at threats within the homeland, or America, that are emanating from there.
In the first two, the threats were always foreign threats. In this one this is more of a home-grown threat, at least primarily.
Finally, what technologies in development are you personally excited for?
I think that things around the generation and capture of power are intriguing, so Tesla, Musk’s work, is very impressive and the battery technology that’s advancing I think has the potential to be enormously powerful.
I would say the driverless car concept is another technology that I think in twenty or thirty years could literally change the map, and what I mean by that is I live in the city – I live in Boston and I would gladly book and walk out and get into an Uber-owned vehicle or whatever that would take me to my destination and give up my own personal car.
The driverless car concept is another technology that in twenty or thirty years could literally change the map
Now that’s not necessarily for everybody, but I think once it becomes reliable that’ll be interesting.
As far as computer technology, boy, I’m reading with fascination the debate about AI, you’ve probably read Hawking’s warning that it could be the end of mankind.
I’m not that pessimistic. I actually think that a lot of technologies that emerge are feared at first, certainly computers were when they first came out, so I think there is AI that is incredibly exciting and that can dramatically improve human life.
The other one is in the genetics realm, because I think it’s going to improve the quality of healthcare, so that all of us are getting personalised care down to the genetic level.