Myanmar Part of Brave New World in ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’

By Edith Mirante 30 January 2015

A clever social-satire and cyber-thriller, David Shafer’s “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” begins its interwoven narrative in Mandalay. It’s a bit harder to locate in time than in place, but the story about three young adults grappling against an international cabal on the verge of privatizing all information, looks like it was set in a time before 2010, when it became easier to be an INGO in Myanmar.

Officials in the military are making life difficult for Leila Majnoun, a Persian-American experienced in arranging medical assistance for various trouble zones.

Leila’s zeal for “global improvement” encounters a different type of obstacle when a rural health worker, Ma Thiri, turns down her offer of an overseas scholarship.

Ma Thiri points out that she is needed in her Kachin State town and can’t be tempted by subsidized travel to the United States. The incident is a parable about the kind of top-down funding that serves the agenda of development INGOs without paying attention to actual local needs.

Leila’s steely resolve is put to a new test when some roadblock-running reveals a strange installation with foreign security and tech support near Myanmar’s border with China. Her choice to “crowd source” an inquiry about it, complete with GPS coordinates, to various journalistic and intelligence contacts, sets in motion connections to the two other main characters: a pair of substance-abusing Harvard classmates. Leo is prone to “swamps of gloom” and paranoid blogging; Mark is the self-loathing author of a vapid self-help book. While Leo ends up in rehab, Mark is increasingly corrupted by the manipulative CEO of the very Google-like SineCo.

When Mark encounters Leila in a Heathrow Airport bar, his brain is so vodka-compromised that he has to ask for her help with a simple Jumble puzzle in the newspaper. The Jumble, in which a series of rearranged words provide clues for solving a riddle, echoes the structure of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot:” the knowledge and skill sets of Leila, Leo and Mark are not enough on their own, but once the trio works together they can begin to unravel the cyber-conspiracies that ensnare them. They are well-formed, flawed yet sympathetic characters, evolving right up to the very end of this wide-ranging tale.

A first-time novelist, Mr. Shafer provides brightly polished prose, with something of Evelyn Waugh’s arch, sardonic tone. Quirky turns of phrase abound, including nouns like “trebuchet” (a medieval catapult) used as verbs. He gets the ambiance of Myanmar and Portland, Oregon right enough, although this reviewer can’t attest to the veracity of his other locales, including a Dublin horse market and a massive freighter in the South China Sea.

Unfortunately, at some point between the horse market and the freighter, a reasonably plausible plot line—huge corporation ruthlessly seeks complete domination of online information—becomes rather a jumble, with “truth holes,” a secret farm with fields of “biocomputers” and even a rogue agent “parachuted out of a drone.”

If capable of the suspension of disbelief required for all that, readers who like speculative cyber-craziness should greatly enjoy “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” The book, which is a surprise hit in the United States, ventures even farther into viral fantasy than Dave Eggar’s “The Circle” and has more interesting people in its brave new world.

Mr. Shafer’s message throughout is that information has become a commodity that can and will be controlled, whether by “corruptocrats” of Myanmar or the sophisticated “Ruiners” of SineCo and their ilk. But he also shows how such control can be undermined by the unpredictable few who unite to resist.

Edith Mirante is the author of “The Wind in the Bamboo” and founder of Project Maje. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” by David Shafer, is published by Mulholland Books.

This story first appeared in the January 2015 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.