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The Penetrator #30: Computer Kill

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The Penetrator #30: Computer Kill by Lionel Derrick
Pinnacle Books, 1979
Price I paid: $1.50

Electronics wizard Hector Lattimer has at last figured out a fool-proof way to beat the system. Using his ingeniously designed portable computer terminal, Lattimer can tap into any programmed bank and authorize payment to his account. Then, in a flash of a diode, all data is wiped out—with no one the wiser…and Lattimer the richer.

Even the Penetrator is baffled—until he learns that the engineer is an embittered ex-employee of an electronics firm; a madman whose attempts at extortion have failed, who is now planning to destroy the entire works by automating a deadly device that will trigger an explosion.

It’s a touchy situation, and Mark Hardin’s number may be up—unless he can stop the bomb before it blows!

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. I kept putting off the review because I was thinking I wanted to do something flashy and computery with it, something like a livetweet as I read it. I decided against that for a few reasons.

  • I wanted to make sure the whole thing would be available here, and while I know there are some way to collect a Twitter thread into an unrolled narrative, I didn’t feel like looking it up and doing it.
  • Twitter is nazi garbage.
    • nazis don’t deserve a capital letter.
  • I couldn’t find anything else to read this week.

That last point is a bit of a fib. I had something else chosen for this week. I chose it a few hours before I chose this one. The book I had chosen was The Penetrator #4: Hijacking Manhattan. That one might sound familiar, because I discovered that I’d reviewed it already and my memory sucks. I mean, I knew my memory sucked already, but not that badly.

One day I’d like to re-review one of the books I’ve read before. It might be a fun experiment. But I don’t want to do it by accident.

So here we’ve got #30, Computer Kill. This one is exciting in a few ways. For starters, it’s the book immediately after my first Penetrator novel, Aryan Onslaught. That doesn’t matter very much since there’s not a huge amount of continuity between these books, but it’s still neat on a sort of sentimental level. Second, any kind of state-of-the-art computer fiction from the late seventies is bound to be a hilarious trip down memory lane. Sure, it’s a trip further back than my personal memory goes, but one of the really neat things about being a human being is that it doesn’t matter.

This one has a great cover. Just perfect. It turns out that the artist for Penetrator books was one George Wilson, someone I only just now got around to looking up. It’s a bit confusing, because there was another George Wilson who did pulp art, but he died in 1970, so I had to start wondering if all the Penetrator covers were done that well in advance or maybe the time stream was falling apart. It turns out that neither is true. There was another George Wilson who did a ton of cover art across the spectrum and it’s all very very good. Here are some great examples. I particularly like his Star Trek work for Gold Key comics.

This cover says so much. We’ve got Mark Hardin wearing a suit with a yellow tie. What’s he up to this time? Investigating white collar crime? Why would the readers of Penetrator novels give any craps about white collar crime? We’ve got an explosion in a city and a dead woman—all much more interesting. There’s a woman with incredible bangs. I mean…c’mon. Those bangs. They make Carly Rae Jepsen look like…someone…with bad bangs! And, most notably, some lights that look computerish with the ominous number 2 000 000. What on Earth could that mean?

Everything depicted on this cover is in the book. Penetrator novels are quite good about this, and it’s a point in their favor.

Like most Penetrator novels, this one kicks off with a prologue that brings us up to speed. This one doesn’t directly reference any of the other books, but does give us the generic Mark Hardin background story. I’m ashamed to admit that this is the first time I noticed something that now really bothers me. See, part of Mark’s backstory is that he got beat up in Vietnam by his fellow American soldiers, came back home, and was rescued by David Red Eagle, who discovered that Mark was half Cheyenne. It only just occurred to me how odd it is that Mark wouldn’t know that already. Okay, so he was raised as a ward of the state from fairly early childhood after his parents died (were killed?), but surely that’s the kind of thing that would have come up, right? Maybe? There’s a lot I don’t know here. What’s perhaps most notable is that I’ve never learned which half of Mark is the Cheyenne half.

Anyway, after the prologue we meet Mark. He’s already kicked off the story for us, but there’s not much catching up to do. Mark is interested in a company named Bainbridge Technical, which makes computer parts. Bainbridge stocks have been slipping and the company reporting big losses. Mark wants to know if it’s on the level, or if someone is ripping off someone else.

We don’t see much else of Mark Hardin in this one. He’s there, clearly, investigating stuff, but most of the narrative follows the villain. Hector Lattimer starts off as a fairly sympathetic villain. He hates Bainbridge because the company screwed him over a few years ago. Lattimer was an electrical engineer for the company who suffered an accident. The accident should have killed him, but instead it just left him with a crippled right arm. Despite the promise of the CEO, who said that Lattimer would always have a job in his company, he was let go a few years later when it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to carry out his duties with one arm. Because the Americans with Disabilities Act was still a decade or more away, there’s nothing he could do about it. He does get retirement pay from the company, so he’s not destitute, but he’s not happy about it.

So what he’s done is learn how to hack into banks and steal money from corporations. This is the real meat of the story, and it’s amazing. It’s practically science fiction, not only for 1979, but for the present day.

Sure, there’s some elements that are both familiar and realistic. Lattimer uses a computer terminal tied to a telephone line—he even has to put the telephone receiver into a special cradle—to connect to a bank computer and issue it commands. I came of age in the 56k dialup era, so this isn’t totally alien to me. It isn’t even all that weird that he interfaces with the terminal via a typewriter and that all the output is hard copy.

What’s weird is how Lattimer talks to the computer. That is to say, the language in which he issues his commands. See, it’s a plain-language interface that is quite beyond the user interface technology we have as of this writing. It’s also really bad. Here’s a section from page 17. Note that the all-caps stuff is the computer output, regular caps are what Lattimer is inputting:

“BEGIN PROCESS 414 FOR ACCOUNT 010-4184. WHAT TRANSACTION? 1. EXTEND CREDIT LINE. 2. REDUCE CREDIT LINE. 3. HOLD ALL BALANCE IN ACCOUNT. 4. RELEASE BALANCE FOR PAYOUTS.”

“Transaction Code desired, 1.”

“WHAT AMOUNT EXTENSION?”

“Extend to $15,000.”

See what I’m talking about here? Why on Computer God’s #00ff00 Earth would Lattimer need to type, as his input, the phrase “Transaction Code desired?” Why not just type 1? That’s what we do now. Typing anything else would just confuse the computer. On the next bit it happens again. It happens every single time. It’s both bad writing and bad computering.

Lattimer uses his weird interface to steal a lot of money from Bainbridge. He’s able to do this because he seduced a woman who works for the bank the corporation uses to keep its money. The woman, Iris, is in charge of security codes and the like. She is also very bad at her job. Basically, Lattimer will call her up for a date, wine and dine her, and then say something like “Oh golly, I bet I’d never understand your job. How does it work? Oh yeah, codes like what? What codes would a company like, oh, say, Bainbridge use? Wow!”

It’s social engineering at its finest, and the sad part is that it’s pretty realistic. People envision elite hackers pounding away in darkened rooms until ACCESS GRANTED happens and everybody cheers, but the most successful form of hacking is still to email someone and say “This is your bank. Your bank lost the file with all of the debit card numbers and pins. Please send us your debit card number and pin so we can put it back in the file. Thank you. Signed, your bank.”

This Plain English Programming thing is taken to an even more absurd level near the end of the book.

I said that Lattimer is a sympathetic villain, but he really only starts that way. Our author (Chet Cunningham this time) had to make sure of that. Fortunately, Lattimer never dives into sexual menace like so many other Penetrator villains. He’s also not explicitly racist. In terms of both of those trigger warnings, this is one of the better Penetrator novels. Still, he does eventually kill Iris (after she begins to suspect him), and then he starts blowing up buildings without any regard for the people in or near those buildings.

I’m not sure how intentional it was, but I did find it funny how, after he killed Iris, Lattimer decided that his best option was to dress up the crime scene like a Satanic ritual killing. This is interesting because the whole Satanic Panic of the 80s hadn’t kicked off yet, although it was close. Michelle Remembers was about a year away with this Penetrator was published. On the other hand, Lattimer’s internal monologue references the Manson killings, which were a whole ten years prior to this book, so, you know, way to rip from those headlines there, Chet.

Anyway, the cops take one look at the murder scene and then go “Wow, somebody put in a lot of work to make this look like a Satanic ritual killing, which it clearly isn’t.”

It’s when looking into the murder that Mark Hardin gets Lattimer’s scent. While Mark had been in the book doing some investigation before, it was clear that he wasn’t getting anywhere and that his presence was solely to remind people that the book was supposed to be about him. Mark goes to Iris’s apartment, though, because he had just interviewed her the day before about the computer crimes, so he figured there had to be a connection. Just as he shows up, Lattimer’s junkie brother Monty shows up, looking for a fix and thinking that maybe Hector was there. The entire mystery is solved after a couple of threatening glances from Mark. The chase begins.

The fact that Mark learns who the perp is and everything about them completely on accident takes away a lot from this plot.

Mark has been hanging out with a woman named Barbara Simpson for most of this book. She’s the main computer security person for Bainbridge. She’s also harboring a DARK SECRET. She’s basically running the entire company herself because the company’s founder an CEO, Jethro Bainbridge, has suffered a series of strokes and is incapacitated. Knowledge of this cannot be allowed to become public.

She’s been receiving threats from Lattimer, saying that unless she delivers a set amount of money, the company will be bled dry. This seems like a really stupid plot, Mr. Lattimer! If you can just take the money, just take the damn money! No, he has to make it complicated, and after Simpson refuses, Lattimer threatens to blow up buildings. And then he does. Instead of just taking the millions of dollars he has managed to steal from the company without getting caught, he decides to do stuff like that.

To be fair, it’s not the money that motivates him, but the fact that he’s able to humiliate and hurt Bainbridge Technical. That doesn’t make it any better. If he’d just left with his money and a moderate amount of corporate embarrassment, he’d be fine.

Two exploded buildings later, Lattimer has decided to take down the main building. Mark gives chase. Lattimer’s plan is to fill the building with hydrogen and then ignite the hydrogen. It’s barely even computery. Sure, he uses his computer hacking skills to make a delivery of liquid hydrogen to the building, but that’s it. He still shows up in person to empty the bottles and set off the bomb. And to be fair, the first building he blows up was a chemicals plant, and he used his computer hacking to mess up the plant’s processes so that it blew itself up.

Also, this book never calls what Lattimer does “hacking,” so I probably shouldn’t use it myself. The term “hacker culture” dates to the 60s, but it referred to computer hobbyists. I’m not sure when security hacking, which is what we mostly think of today when we think about hacking, became a thing.

This book does use the word “hack” a few times though. You might be thinking that it’s referring to something Mark Hardin does to somebody’s head, but no, that’s not it either. It refers explicitly to taxi drivers.

Lattimer takes his hydrogen bombs

wait no that’s already a different thing

Lattimer takes his bombs made of hydrogen to the basement of Bainbridge Technical and starts letting the gas out. Mark catches him and there’s…not much of a struggle. In fact, the ending of this book is severely anticlimactic, but well in keeping with the rest of how the novel went.

Mark talks to Lattimer for a bit to keep him busy. Lattimer says he’s going to shoot his gun and that’ll set off the hydrogen and kill everyone and he’s not afraid to die. Mark says that the elevator shafts have to have exit vents by law. Lattimer says that he turned those off. Mark says it’s impossible to turn those off. And then…

Mark starts to pass out. He has a weird ‘Nam flashback and then struggles to get to a door before he suffocates. It’s the hydrogen in the air displacing the oxygen, which I’m not actually sure is a thing because hydrogen is waaaaaay lighter than oxygen but whatever.

Mark gets outside and wakes up and somebody says that Lattimer set off the hydrogen, but the explosion was small enough that he only killed himself. Everybody else is fine. The building is barely damaged.

And that’s the ending.

Aw man, who farted, right?

There were some other bits I wanna talk about real fast before we go, though.

Early in the book this random guy shows up and yells at Mark. He yell-splains that he is the brother of a guy that Mark killed way back in book 8, and now he’s gonna get his revenge. The result of this struggle is

  • Mark shatters the guy’s knee
  • Mark shatters the guy’s other knee
  • Oops the guy fell on his own knife, right in the heart
  • Mark slinks away
  • It’s never mentioned again

Now, I get that this scene was probably supposed to serve some kind of a purpose. Maybe it was supposed to establish how Mark’s life is in perpetual danger. It didn’t work because Mark kills the guy in like four seconds and doesn’t break a sweat. Mark even thinks to himself for a moment about how things like this are bound to happen every so often, and then honest to god says that he’s never going to think about it again. So he doesn’t.

It was…weird.

The craziest thing, though, was a bit of side-story that was pure science fiction, and nobody even freaks out about it. Remember how I mentioned that Jethro Bainbridge is incapacitated and unable to run the company, so Barbara Simpson, the head computer tech, is doing it? Well, that’s not completely true.

See, Simpson is a pretty damned skilled computer programmer. This is great, because I wouldn’t have expected to read about a woman in her position in most books today, must less in ’79, so way to have a moment of progressiveness, Chet. (You can cancel out those congratulations by the fact that, despite her stern exterior, she is highly emotional and breaks into tears in every scene she’s in).

But she’s skilled enough that she’s programmed an artificial intelligence.

Because Jethro Bainbridge was aware that he might one day be incapacitated, he got Simpson to encode his entire personality, knowledge, and business skill into the company computer. She runs the company by means of going to a computer terminal, asking it a question in plain English, and having it respond.

At one point she asks it what kind of gift Bainbridge’s son would like. And it responds.

Nobody thinks that this is BANANAS CRAZY.

Lastly, it’s probably worth mentioning something that might be a coincidence, but I’m not at all sure. It has to do with Lattimer. See, at the end of the book, Simpson is trying to figure out how to hack back into Lattimer’s Swiss bank account so that she can steal the money back. She struggles to figure out what his password might be. It’s Mark who stumbles upon the answer: What if it’s just his initials, but in numbers? Of course that’s what it turns out to be. That’s what kind of book this is. But what surprised me was that it turns out that Hector Lattimer’s middle initial was A. His initials are HAL. And this is a book about computer stuff…

I come down on the side of intentional reference, but with some wiggle room.

So that’s the thirtieth Penetrator novel. It’s not one of the worst. Sure, Mark didn’t actually do anything. He barely kills anybody. He never uses his cool dart gun. He doesn’t sneak around or use his magic Cheyenne powers. His most important contribution to this narrative is to figure out that Hector Lattimer was really really bad at password security.

But this book didn’t have any of the problematic stuff that tends to crop up in these books. It’s not perfect, but I don’t feel like anything here deserves a trigger warning. And that’s nice. The last few of these books have been gross.

Plus, this one had some old-timey computer stuff that we could laugh at, and that’s fun. Oh gosh, I almost forgot a bit where somebody is talking about how far computer technology has come. They point out a computer that a mere five years ago would have been the size of a room and cost $25,000 is now capable of being carried in two suitcases for the low low cost of $4,000.

I love it. I’m not making fun of it. It’s absolutely crazy to think about how I’m on the verge of buying a Raspberry Pi Zero, a fully functional computer that can fit in an Altoids tin and costs ten dollars, and that that it quite possibly has more computing power than the entire United States did when this Penetrator book was written. But what’s more crazy is that someone forty years down the line might find this review (unlikely but let’s lean into this fiction), and in turn think about how laughable it is that I was so proud of that.

And then they plug into computer the size of a grain of sand that could, if it weren’t such a waste of precious computing milliseconds to deal with something so outmoded, hold the memories of the entire human race.

And they watch some porno.

Have a good day.


4 Comments

  1. sydlogsdon says:

    Kinda puts the schlock back into schlock_value. I would never read this crap. I wouldn’t even read a review of this crap, if you weren’t writing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Meredith says:

    Simpson might not be that surprising of a character. For a long time, up until about the 80s, programming was more commonly done by women than men. At the beginning of computing, it was incredibly tedious work, and women already worked as “computers”, doing calculations by hand, so it made sense that they programmed the machines. The lead programmer on the Apollo programme, for instance, was Margaret Hamilton, who coined the term “software engineer” because she was tired of the other engineers belittling her work as less important.

    Liked by 1 person

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