‘The Cloud’: a techno-thriller with heart

Matt Richtel, the Pulitzer prize-winning technology reporter for The New York Times, has a provocative and thrilling new novel set for publication on Tuesday — “The Cloud” (Harper).

The book raises troubling questions about the impact of our ever-multiplying electronic gizmos on the brain development of children in a tale set in the Bay Area with a memorable protagonist, freelance journalist Nat Idle (who is anything but like his name).

In the early pages of the novel, Nat nearly meets his maker on a subway platform when someone tries to push him over the edge.

A beautiful woman named Faith comes to Nat’s aid, but her motivation is questionable right from the start, as our hero finds himself in the center of a labyrinthine plot involving a former reality TV show star, a mysterious super-rich tech entrepreneur, and a new device designed to make it easier for kids to keep all of their electronic data streams organized.

Nat is also recovering from his separation from a high-powered, super-organized businesswoman who dumped him just as she was about to give birth to their son.

The journalist’s personal problems turn out to be much more complex than we can imagine in the early chapters — as he deals with a concussion caused by the subway attack — and his issues of control vs. chaos and modern child-rearing challenges are mirrored in the thriller plot.

Nat lives in a world in which old notions of security and privacy have collapsed: “While she’s gone, I call up my email. I type in my password, and while my messages load, wonder who else might be reading over my shoulder. This idea doesn’t particularly startle me; on some level, I long ago accepted our Internet habits are a fishbowl being scrutinized by ne’er-do-wells — on a continuum from advertiser to nosy kid to blackmailer. There are creepy implications, no doubt, but most of what they’d discover is how mundane is our humanity.”

The ease with which our lives can be invaded by distant outsiders presents a challenge to modern thriller writers — eluding your enemies is harder than ever — but Richtel knows this world inside-out and turns it to his advantage. The result is a scary but wonderful paranoid thriller that often plays like an update of one of those marvelously chilly 70s thrillers such as “The Parallax View” or “Three Days of the Condor.” The second half of a sentence about a third of the way into “The Cloud” neatly boils down Nat’s world view — “assume someone is monitoring you and act accordingly.”