For 34-year-old David Knight, life is about to get complex and adventuresome.
He’s the protagonist in Avraham Shama’s debut novel “Cyberwars: David Knight Goes to Moscow.”
The year is 1999 and Knight is a newly-hired professor of economics at the University of New Mexico. He has come to UNM after failing to get tenure status at New York University as he assumed he would. The failure, and his divorce, leave him emotionally broken. His move to Albuquerque is a fresh start. However, he quickly enters worlds he had never imagined.
While moving into his campus office, he gets a call from a woman with an unidentified federal government agency. She was impressed with a paper he had delivered at Los Alamos National Laboratory on the Russian economy. She invites him to Washington, D.C. and soon Knight agrees to work under contract as a “consultant,” unofficially as a spy, for the Central Intelligence Agency.
At the CIA’s request, he heads to Moscow to report back on the health of Russia’s private sector economy under the new, aggressive regime of Vladimir Putin. Putin wants his country to boost its economy, and take a stronger geopolitical role, including investing in cyber weapons targeting the United States.
The novel, with adequate moments of intrigue and tension, also looks inside Knight’s personal life.
He’s dating Toni Chavez, herself a newly-appointed UNM political science professor. Hispanic, Toni is from a small town in northern New Mexico. She received a public education. Her background contrasts with Knight, an Anglo from the East Coast who attended private schools.
Though their relationship heats up from the get-go, Knight is reluctant to go public about their romance. What’s more, he doesn’t know what to tell Toni about his work for the CIA. So he keeps her in the dark. He’s hardly able to acknowledge his espionage to himself.
On his first visit to Moscow, Knight falls under the spell of Alexa, his Russian translator, a government economist, a femme fatale and a possible spy. Feeling guilty, he’s certainly not going to reveal to Toni about his fling with Alexa.
Knight turns to nature to guide him through some of these conflicts. On a hike, he stops to ask a bunch of wild marigolds if he’s doing the right thing as a “spy.” The marigolds tell him it’s OK as long as he has no intention to do harm. He denies any such intention. In fact, Knight feels a growing sense of patriotism working for the CIA.
He informs the marigolds he’s also questioning his intentions with Toni.
The marigolds tell him he’s doing the right thing, advising him, “Doubting everything is normal. Doubt comes before clarity.”
Shama, the author, said Knight’s communing with nature can be seen as a reflection of the protagonist’s inner thoughts.
An Albuquerque resident, Shama said he decided to write this book as a work of fiction “because it gives me certain freedoms. I can present a lot of information without attribution to any person or any organization. … I have the freedom to explore facts and hypotheses as to the motivation of Russia regarding invading the United States through cyberspace.”
The character of David Knight, Shama said, is based on himself and people he has read about. Shama was born in Iraq, raised in Israel and has lived in the U.S. since 1970. He is professor emeritus of international business from UNM.
Other aspects of Knight’s life are worth noting, he said. Knight grew up as the privileged son of a physician-father and a mother who was a graduate of Smith College. “His mother raised him like her roses in the garden,” Shama said.
And Knight was a single child. “Single children are different,” the author said. “They keep to themselves. They’re hypersensitive.”
The novel concludes with several moral uncertainties. Will Knight keep working sub rosa for the CIA? Will he be able to deflect two men who have shadowed him and now want to recruit him to spy for Russia? And what’s the future of Knight and Toni?
The unanswered questions will lead readers to wonder if a sequel is in the offing.
Shama isn’t committing to a sequel. But if he did write one, he said, “it would probably be called ‘Cyberwars: David Knight Goes to Beijing.’ ”
Shama links the novel to reality. He predicts that once the current Russia-Ukraine war is over, the U.S. will enter into a strained relationship with China over Taiwan.