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Computer Terror

Duane Franklet programs a cyberthriller into Houston

Most of us already fear our computers. Bad things happen to good data all the time: Disk errors! Unreadable files! Crashed servers! You may question God's existence, but you feel sure that Satan whirs, inscrutable, right there on your desktop.

Duane Franklet approaches such evils more rationally. The president and co-owner of Data Tracking Services, a consulting company, he reassures companies that the glitches in their systems require software patches, not exorcists. To him and the legions of techies like him, machines are merely obedient servants carrying out human commands.

Of course, if you think about it, that's an even scarier notion. And it lies at the heart of Franklet's first published novel, the thriller Bad Memory (Pocket Books). The plot is this: A large, Houston-based computer manufacturer named Simtec (a thinly disguised Compaq) finds its computer network under attack, and its corporate future hangs in the balance. An extortionist demands first $1 million to stop the assault, then $5 million -- and Barry Shepard, Simtec's stout-hearted third-in-command, grows determined to unmask the human villain behind the scrambled databases and erased hard drives.

The tale delivers the usual pleasures of its genre: near escapes, plot developments aplenty and a sharper, more satisfying sense of good and evil than the real world generally provides. But in an unusual twist, those elements exist in the exotic-but-familiar environs where Franklet makes his life: in Houston, and in the world of computers.

For other Houstonians, Bad Memory offers the rare gratification of seeing our city as a backdrop for fiction: a villain skates at the Galleria ice rink; a Houston Chronicle reporter waits for a press conference to begin; the villain dupes a Rice professor. Occasionally, the local color even reveals character: For instance, though Barry Shepard lives only three streets away from George Bush -- and we all know the luxury that implies -- our hero still considers his lifestyle modest.

The mild shock of recognition is so enjoyable that it's a little disappointing not to be able to identify, say, the pizza joint where Barry orders a slice, or the hospital where an intrepid consultant recovers. And alas, Simtec, for all its similarities, isn't really Compaq. Though both companies compete with Dell, are housed on college-like campuses and pride themselves on reliability, fictional CEO Diane Hughes is nothing at all like Eckhardt Pfeiffer. If anything, she's duller -- there's nothing as fascinating and inexplicable about her as there is about Pfeiffer's friendship with fizzy hostess-with-the-mostest Carolyn Farb. Fiction, after all, must be believable.

The book's tech arcana easily meets that standard. Franklet authoritatively invokes batch files, jokes about Sneakernet and the panic a Windows user feels upon facing a C:> prompt; one plot turn involves the difference between deleting a file and erasing it. For the digerati, the pleasant "I know that" buzz is similar to what a Houston reader feels on reading a mention of Pappasito's margaritas.

Such deja vu is perhaps the chief pleasure of Bad Memory, which will appeal most to Houstonians and the aficionados who browse PC World with a lustful eye. The novel reminds you that what you love most about suspense novels isn't really their surprises; it's that they make the familiar -- your city, your computer, your messy life -- seem manageable. In Franklet's Houston, a happy ending is guaranteed, and the guy who screwed up your files will get what he deserves.

Most novelists give up their day jobs when they land a contract with a major publisher. Franklet, though, has no wish to escape Data Tracking Services, and has given up only his mornings. Coffee in hand, he walks out his front door each day, around to the side of his Montrose house, and unlocks the door to his sunny upstairs study, once a studio apartment. He boots his Power Mac, and for a couple of hours devotes himself to his next book.

That one, too, will be a cyberthriller. Franklet says he's learned to write what he knows, and obviously, what he knows is computers. For an earlier novel, he tried shadowing a Houston cop, riding along on patrol, but didn't feel that he fully understood his subject: "You can ride along through the Third Ward. You can sit in the car while the cop is busting people. But you're not going to know what goes on in a cop's head. Not unless you're a cop. Joseph Wambaugh was a cop. The guys who write legal thrillers -- Scott Turow, John Grisham -- were lawyers. Michael Crichton and Robin Cook were doctors. Herman Melville served on a whaling ship."

Franklet's also learned not to be too specific when describing technical details. Nearly two years passed between the time Pocket Books bought Bad Memory and the novel's publication; in that time, Franklet had to update the hardware and software mentioned in the book, and even so, he worried that the computer gear would seem quaint by the time of the actual release. As he was finishing his manuscript, the advent of Windows95 particularly worried him: If the user interface lived up to its hype, several of the villain's schemes might no longer wreak havoc. Nervously, Franklet mailed Microsoft $25 for a beta version of the software, so he could test the operating system in its infancy. As much as any of Microsoft's competitors, he was relieved to find that the upgrade wasn't all that different from the old version. Just in case, he fudged a bit: Instead of naming Windows95 outright in Bad Memory, he cagily wrote about "the newest version of Windows." Still, he laments that even carefully crafted computer-ese has a short shelf life. For Bad Memory's likely paperback version, Franklet is trying to decide whether to update the specifics or simply allow the tale to appear as a relic from the recent past, when Pentiums still roamed the earth.

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