Paul W. Smith
The Wilkes Insurrection by Robbie Bach - a Review
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” These words from Abraham Lincoln came at a time when our Nation was at its most divided point in history - a time when differences ran so deep that we were literally at war with one another. The dangerous divisiveness that exists in America today is fertile ground for a riveting story.
A good read is engaging, entertaining, and suspenseful, with vivid scenes populated by fully developed characters and strung together with a compelling story arc. While not breaking new ground for the genre, The Wilkes Insurrection by Robbie Bach mostly checks all the boxes. This is the first novel from author Bach, who previously led the team at Microsoft that developed the Xbox video game business. A self-described “Civic Engineer”, he believes all of us have an essential responsibility to engage productively in public issues. Failure to do so can push us perilously apart.
As the events of this story first began to unfold, I was struck by the line “...extraordinary things happen for a reason.” From that point on, the reader is challenged to decipher a potent series of unexpected events – multiple domestic terrorist attacks set among the lingering aftereffects of 9/11 and a global pandemic – and unravel the mystery while wrestling with the unavoidable implications for today’s world.
The crash landing of a commercial airliner at an Air Force base in Omaha, Nebraska sets the scene for the introduction of several of the main characters, notably Major Tamika Smith who is responsible for rescuing survivors. The crash is not an accident, but rather the first of a series of seemingly random attacks which claim thousands of lives while sowing the seeds of fear and distrust in our basic institutions. A clever criminal is taking advantage of the dark web and cryptocurrencies to hide his illegal transactions and activities. Law enforcement is baffled, and the anarchist’s obsessions seem unstoppable. Ties to recent historical events and social trends add a sense of realism and relevance to the story.
Most readers are quite familiar with Twitter and the power of this social-media tool to shape the national conversation. In the novel, a picture of Tamika – a black woman – carrying Johnny Humboldt – a white male – from the wreckage of a plane crash goes viral. The response is polarized, mirroring the division often wrought by today’s tragic events.
Tamika (Air Force officer and world-class track athlete), and Johnny (financial whiz and entrepreneur) are two central characters whose involvement in pivotal events effectively builds their backstory. Paul Hayek (engineer, Johnny’s business partner, and a peaceful follower of Islam) is a key part of Johnny’s story who gets caught up in anti-Muslim stereotyping and media-fueled racism. Ford Wilkes (the story’s principal antagonist, enabler of terrorist Obaid bin Latif) is familiar from his actions well before he is formally introduced to the reader. The character I personally found the most intriguing was Bryce (a troubled dark web hacker) who wrestles with his conscience as he comes to realize his complicity in the terrorist attacks.
At one point when Tamika faces a difficult decision about her future, she reads this challenge in a letter from her father, General Frank Smith - “Am I self-aware enough to know when my time has arrived?”. This is relevant to all of the principal characters and their individual self-reflection is a big part of what makes them real and believable.
The growing sense of fear and apprehension in the story is not just imaginary as the author connects the fictional characters to real events that most of his readers will have experienced first-hand. The images of the World Trade Center collapse are vividly burned into our minds, evoking a visceral reaction to the attacks in the book. The terrorist goal of undermining our trust in electricity, water, and safe travel is a means of inciting fear and causing our system to collapse from within. The characters and their connections are slowly and strategically revealed in a suspenseful way – we don’t meet the eponymous Ford Wilkes until about 1/3 into the story. Tension builds through the use of multiple storylines, each pausing at a “cliff hanger” before cycling on to another.
This is not one of those neatly satisfying stories where the overwhelming resources of the good guys inevitably triumph. One attack is thwarted by luck when a door is unintentionally left open, and an agent spots something out of place. The tide is also turned against the terrorist when a dark web hacker begins to experience a change of conscience. In the end, we are more vulnerable than we would like to admit.
It is not until the final chapter, in Tamika’s speech about the Lincoln Coalition (Lincoln Project?) that the focus shifts to the politics of divisiveness. It is an inevitable part of the landscape and serves to underpin the ultimate message – democracy is fragile and must be actively protected. Whether or not you ultimately believe that author Bach was fair and impartial with the way he integrated contemporary politics into the narrative will probably depend on which side you have already taken.
The Wilkes Insurrection is not a manifesto, but a terrific read that happens to be set in a highly politicized time period in American history. I found the characters to be engaging, and it was impossible not to identify with their individual battles for redemption and self-realization. The terrorist attacks which provide the framework for the story arc are exactly the kind of thing we have all feared since 9/11 jolted us out of our complacency. Author Robbie Bach does a masterful job of maintaining suspense from cover to cover – it’s a hard book to put down, and a tough one to forget.
Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.