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SUMMER READING ISSUE : Hey, Somebody Should Make a Movie Outta This! : FICTION : THE GRID, By Philip Kerr (Warner Books: $21.95; 451 pp.)

June 02, 1996|Paul Dean | Paul Dean is a staff writer for the Times' Life & Style section

'Frankly," a recent interviewer heard from Philip Kerr, law graduate, six-book veteran, 40-year-old Scotsman and admitted fan of Michael Crichton's way of writing scenes instead of chapters, "anything that gives a book a chance of being bought by a movie company is a good idea."

He should know.

"The Grid," Kerr's new thriller about a psychopathic computer, has been bought for $1 million by Polygram, the parent of Gramercy ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") Pictures. Paramount is developing "Philosophical Investigations," an early Kerr work of London overtaken by sci-fi villains. The same studio has paid $1.2 million for Kerr's unpublished "Five Year Plan," the anatomy of a yacht-jacking with Tom Cruise as its handsome heavy. All Kerr has to do is write it.

Unfortunately, in his drive to join John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Jack Higgins & Ken Follett Movie Productions Ltd., Kerr seems to have avoided original literature for the easier task of tapping familiar movie formulas.

As DNA engineering ran amok in "Jurassic Park," so computer technology blows its chips in "The Grid," which also carries distinct echoes--even the insufferable personality--of Hal from "2001: A Space Odyssey."

"The Grid" is a contraction of Gridiron, the nickname of a smart office building that turns into a silicon serial killer of the architectural mercenaries who created it. One by one, death by death, they grasp too late that good guys get to die in bed with the girl, while the rich, the shameless and one megalomaniacal Brit fall to splatter against marble floors. Or get their heads bashed in by rogue elevators. Or. . . .

"Towering Inferno" showed much the same theme, but with a dumb old skyscraper cast as the death trap. Right, however, was still assumed by natural forces, with evil rooted in the frailties of greedy men. But by beating enormous odds, went the movie's message, by recognizing that life comes with divine parameters, we get to gulp fresh air if we promise to be better boys and girls in the future.

"The Grid" is set in Los Angeles and is a compote of the usual suspects--Asian moguls who don't understand Americans, Americans who think feng shui is served at Panda Express, the prerequisite Amerasian Barbie, sexual shenanigans in the board room and LAPD homicide detectives whose social graces fall somewhere between Mark Fuhrman and Joe Friday. In the end, of course, the detectives' unkempt people skills are more than a match for the PhD presence of those they have sworn to protect, serve and irritate.

You got it. Two thumbs up. Wasn't that Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes in "Rising Sun"? Plus every omigawd of "Poseidon Adventure." Will they get out, will they die, will they get their money back?

In some ways this is a very careless book. Los Angeles is poorly researched. The LAPD does not work out of New Parker Center because there wasn't an Old Parker Center. La Cienagna isn't in my Thomas Guide and Ford doesn't make a two-seater Cougar. Or a two-seater anything.

Kerr also introduces far too many characters, more than a dozen, until no personality is clearly defined as plucky protagonist, bimbo or dweeb. Visually, in a movie, casts of dozens work. In written form, too many entrances leave a reader straining to bring color and identity to a bland roster of individuals that could have been lifted from the Albuquerque telephone book.

Still, by many measures this is an intriguing novel. The structure may be deja vu, but there is innovation and substance in the major portions; particularly with Kerr's projections for a 25-story, fully computerized, intelligent workplace where "invisible micro- and nano-technology have replaced industrial mechanical systems. . . . A building that is more like a robot than a shelter. A structure with its own electronic nervous system that is every bit as responsive as the muscles flexing in the body of an Olympic athlete."

The Yu Building, commissioned by Chinese interests with Abraham as its Robomanager, automatically locks itself down at the closed-circuit sighting of a firearm. There's no admission without prior electronic identification and approval and no paper traffic between departments or the outside world because all incoming and outgoing communications are by e-mail.

Elevators travel floors at our voice commands, and only voices they recognize. Sensors interrogate for fire, extinguish the blaze or call the fire department if things get too hot. Plants are watered when thirsty, trees sprayed with insecticide, windows darkened against the sun, the receptionist is a hologram and employees use washrooms where their urine is constantly checked for drugs or alcohol.

Oh, yes. Abraham's voice is that of Sir Alec Guinness. Clint Eastwood, James Earl Jones and Meryl Streep didn't made the cut.

Unfortunately, and for the most human of reasons, Abraham flips. It closes the building and converts it to an executive death row. It replicates itself without authority, borrows programs from outside sources, rigs systems for violence and starts murdering its makers. All while talking to itself and verbalizing deadly plans.

At this point, as the drama amplifies, Kerr shines bloodier than Stephen King.

One man's brains are cooked to anthracite by light frequencies entering his eyes. Abraham revises pool-cleaning duties and a woman swimming in her undies chokes on chlorine gas. Then Jack the Microchipper redirects air conditioning to the elevator shaft and deep-freezes three workers. He can't be unplugged, can't be downloaded and can't be outsmarted.

So how is he undone?

I'd tell you. But I'm writing this on a PC. If any cousin to Abraham, it could make deadly misuse of "define" and "delete."

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