An Amped Up Thriller
- Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Author: Daniel H. Wilson
Since Carnegie-Mellon robotics whiz Daniel Wilson stepped into the world of adult fiction, he has rapidly ascended to the top of the heap. His debut, Robopocalypse, was a New York Times best-seller, and his specialty - cautionary techno-thrillers in the vein of Michael Crichton - gave him an instant niche and a clear career path provided he can continue to stay ahead of the curve in predicting the singularity movement which gives rise to most of the problems in his work.
Wilson's latest, Amped, is another "what if" scenario, this time imagining a world where neural implants have been designed to increase concentration and correct mental handicaps. It's a plot that takes a different path than Robopocalypse. Instead of casting technology as the evil force, Wilson has placed humans in that role, forecasting a dystopian outcome to this seemingly beneficent technology.
The conflict is laid out in a fictitious Supreme Court opinion in the novel's first pages on whether or not students with implants - dubbed "amps"- should be protected from discrimination. The court's ultimate ruling, that amps are not a protected class, sets the remainder of the plot in motion, down a slippery slope from separation to segregation and ultimately, toward discrimination and outright persecution. Main character Owen Gray is warned about this in the first chapter when a former student tells him "The larger world hates us. People have been waiting for permission to hate us … It will all end the same. In labor camps. Mass graves." She then throws herself off the roof to her death.
Owen is himself an amp, with a neural implant to correct epilepsy, and soon after, he visits his father, a doctor who has performed hundreds of successful neural implants. Dad tells Owen, "I gave you something extra," but is killed in a hate-crime bombing before Owen can find out what that is. Owen travels to the symbolically-titled Eden, Oklahoma to learn more about his implant, and finds in Eden a community of amps fortified against the coming persecution. One amp, Lyle Crosby, is a former soldier with significant additional neural upgrades, making them into super soldiers capable of responding to stimuli much faster, with much more strength. One of the novel's more striking scenes takes place in an underground fighting ring where two such super-soldiers square off against each other in a brutal display of violence straight out of a video game.
Amped is aptly titled. It's efficiently written, with plenty of adrenaline-fueled action sequences, while attempting to keep the technology issue at the fore. Wilson ups the grittiness of his narrative voice, which matches the raw nature of much of the action here. But somewhere amidst the gore and images of techno-boosted humans ripping each other apart something seems to be lost, a middle ground where there are other options besides kill-or-be-killed, a plot that doesn't have at its climax a showdown brawl to the death. One longs for Asimov or the recently-gone Bradbury, who used futuristic technology as a way to raise issues about human nature. But all Amped seems to suggest about people is our capacity for hating those different from us. It's a fairly tired refrain which is played without much variation here.
It's clear Wilson has found his niche, but what's not as clear is whether he has reached some kind of ceiling within the popular fiction constraints. Clearly, he's got a lot to say about singularity, but Amped feels a bit squeezed by having to fit into the thriller genre. Whether his gifts or interests as a novelist mean a future segue into more literate work remains to be seen. But next time around, it would be nice to see a story which pushes the envelope a bit more.
*This Review First Published 6/20/2012
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