Skinning the Surface 

Anxiety Makes a Great Thriller

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SKINNER IS ABOUT everything we're scared of. Terrorism, climate change, military privatization, global economic inequality—it all forms the buzzing background of Charlie Huston's excellent new thriller, which feels two steps ahead of the present moment even as it encapsulates everything that's freaked us out in the last decade.

Apparently, when writing a novel about everything, not just any hero will do. Skinner's eponymous protagonist had a most unusual childhood: He was raised in a box. A Skinner box, natch—his childhood a perfectly controlled experiment, all sensory input regulated by his autistic-scientist parents. (This too-glib characterization of Skinner's parents as empathy deficient, "autism-blunted" scientists is the novel's only major misstep.)

Huston's hero, who wryly calls himself "Skinner," emerged from his childhood box a strange, distant man, and was recruited early by a CIA operative who saw his potential value. Skinner soon gained notoriety for his maxim: "The only way to secure an asset is to ensure that the cost of acquiring it is greater than its value." In other words, if you fuck with someone under Skinner's protection, he will make you pay, and pay, and pay.

Skinner's newest "asset" is Jae, a strung-out technology expert with an uncontrollable compulsion to find patterns in systems, even seemingly random ones. Jae's a tremendously cool female character, a brainy badass with a pocketful of robots whose shaky hold on sanity is tightest when she's off the grid entirely. Jae and Skinner are charged with finding the source of a cyber attack on the US—but because this is a thriller, and a good one, their mission soon takes them in unexpected directions. (Hint: Mumbai, by way of some World Trade Organization protests.)

Skinner doesn't just borrow from the headlines—it critiques them, in the service of a well-plotted and ultimately character-driven story. It's a hell of a book.

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