Memoirs of a Virus Programmer

Memoirs of a Virus Programmer

Memoirs of a Virus Programmer by Pete Flies, is a novel that puts satire and psychology in the pit together to examine the motives of a young disgruntled employee and his attempt to bring down an elephant-sized company. The main character, Johnny Pepper, sets his virus execution to run "one week before the end of the third fiscal quarter, which happened to be the perfect time for a Dow stock to take a dive and rattle Wall Street." It spoofs the "Memoirs of a..." genre and an explores the motivations of a young virus writer.


Plot summary

Prior to this book, various groups and psychiatrists have studied the motives of a virus programmer. According to Sarah Gordon in her study titled, "The Generic Virus Writer," she draws disturbing conclusions such as "virus writers…seem to be motivated by different reasons than the old 'virus underground,'" and she calls for active pursuit of ethics in universities. Memoirs of a Virus Programmer has the programmer acting out for a non-traditional reason: revenge. The virus is Pepper's only chance to be creative in a large company, where he is continually strangled by red-tape and office politics.

A 2001 CNN interview of a virus writer named "Evan" echoed some of the ideas in Memoirs, with his statement that writing a virus is something that some programmers "were just called to do." The sentiment of Evan sounds very similar to that of authors and artists who feel compelled to create. However, Pepper feels that he has been driven or forced to write a virus to find a way to be creative, making his motive subtly different from Evan's attraction to writing viruses. It is the company's ethics, such as the common practice of layoffs, the corporate attitude, and the overcharging of customers for billable hours, that niggle Pepper, along with a pontificating office-mate who continually reads the news out loud and speaks condescendingly. However, it is his own isolation and emotional instability that ultimately allows him to write the virus.

The author, Flies, indicates that Johnny Pepper is a different type of criminal. "He is in mental pain. Instead of going postal, he undercuts the corporation in a way that actually hurts. If what you rage against is only an entity on paper, then what good is physical violence? A virus is a type of intellectual violence. There is a discourse on types of violence in the book, such as violence of mercy, violence of duty, entertainment, medical, and finally, electronic violence."

"It is a book about an era and an archetype, both of which are to date unexplored in fiction and satire. The character begins like Candide, with absurd optimism, hoping for creativity in his career, but while he runs the gauntlet of modern life - from the suburbs, to the slums, through Christian revivalism, into the arms of a desperate housewife - his mood degrades into Dostoyevsky's nameless narrator from Notes from the Underground."

The setting is Minneapolis in the year 2000. Fans of Office Space and Fight Club will be a target audience, and Flies has described the novel as "a science fiction comedy."

The naïve Pepper is surrounded by modern character archetypes. From his faceless project manager, to his pontificating cube-mate, to the desperate housewife next door, he stumbles his way through a fictional memoir, making mud of his ideals, and capturing the apoplectic dot-com era and contemporary Christian revival. The tone and pace of the novel is upbeat: "My manager spoke in a genial manner, and as he spoke, his brushy moustache bounced over his upper lip like a little floor broom at work."

Pepper dates a woman named Katya, a former pharmaceutical saleswoman-cum-anarchist who despises corporations. When Katya ends the relationship, Pepper becomes consumed with his programming: "I looked for my viral insertion point. I opened and closed many files as I searched for something perfectly obtuse, a file that no one really understood or cared about any more."

He describes the technical pieces of the virus in detail, including the methods used to lift a password off his hated office-mate in order to log in as another user. He becomes almost insane with joy in programming the virus, saying, "My nerves tightened…my fingers trembled as I wrote my program after hours. Writing the virus code thrilled me, my eyes stayed glued to my monitor. In my chair, I leaned so far forward to the computer screen, that I had to put a knee on the carpet." He defends his goal by saying, "for the first time…my inflated title of 'software engineer' was applicable."

The execution of his program kicks off with a single thread that proliferates. "A thread can do all kinds of wonderful, useful jobs…To activate the thread, I needed to have a kickoff point, a hook, somewhere else in the code. The activation needed to be senseless and confusing enough that no programmer coming across it would want to consider wasting his time monkeying with it."

From a bug that he fixed earlier in the story, he knows of an obtuse vulnerability in the software that no one else in the company is aware of. He describes the "party crasher" as "a dynamic generation-compile-load of a tiny executable that would attempt to call a native function from outside the active WebCutter program, but the function invoked would not exist." Completely unapologetic throughout his virus creation, Pepper obfuscates his code using "a series of bewildering multiplications, divisions, and bitwise operations to arrive at a more suitable date for the virus to activate."

Yet the book does not glorify the criminal act, as Pepper finds himself facing an ethical dilemma beyond his control. But, on the other hand, he shows no pity for Symantec or Norton either.

Other themes include connected isolation, culture loss, technophilia/phobia, information overload, and lack of community.


Flies, Pete (30 December 2005). Memoirs of a Virus Programmer (1st ed.). Stonegarden.Net. ISBN 0-9765426-8-4. 

External links

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