(this is an older picture of him)
Today, February 13, is the 15th birthday of a smart, funny, sweet young man, Phillip Abass King, my son. Phillip was born the day before Valentine’s Day 2001. It seems like yesterday. It was a fine day, unusual in February. I was there, you’re allowed to be in the room now if you’re the dad so long as you stay out of the way of the working people. He was a happy baby and he’s gone on to be a happy young man. Among other things, he introduced me to this author so in Phillip’s honor I’m posting a review of Daniel H. Wilson’s newest oeuvre, Amped.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve read (or not) a number of reviews of heavy historical tomes. This is a new departure for me, fiction. I’ve read little fiction in the last twenty years or so, mostly only stuff my kids are reading so as to read it to them. Abraham and Phillip got almost all of the Harry Potter books read to them, although when they started getting scary in volume four or so, I stopped for a few years until their maturity caught up with that of the characters and the story. In the interests of knowing what my kids were doing, I read Robopocalypse at Phillip’s recommendation when it came out a couple of years ago.
Amped is similar in many ways to Robopocalypse, which was a story about a near future war between a self-aware computer program that can control most electronic equipment (including self-driving cars and autonomous military weapons like drones) and the human race. Ultimate victory demands discovering a way for artificial intelligence and human intelligence to coexist peacefully, and even to love. In Amped, neural implant technology has developed enough in the near future to permit routine implantation of devices in people’s brains that will cure most neurological disorders such as epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, autism, schizophrenia, developmental disorders, and so forth. These neurological implants, however, also have the effect of increasing the intelligence of the users. They can also be linked to other electronic devices such as powered artificial limbs, enhanced eyes and ears, anything you can imagine. And Mr. Wilson has a good imagination. The government starts out by giving people implants – military veterans suffering from war wounds, poor children with Down’s or fetal alcohol syndrome, people with severe mental illness. They also experiment with intentionally supporting users’ intelligence in order to create super-soldiers. But there is a reaction – what about people who can’t get “government cheese” in their heads and can’t afford it for themselves? Are they going to be the new excluded class? So the majority react, forming pressure groups, led by a Donald Trump-like charismatic politician, and agitate for, and ultimately obtain, declarations from the courts and government that “amps” aren’t citizens and don’t even have basic human rights. Amps organize to fight back. Caught in the middle is the central character, who thinks he has a normal therapeutic amp for his epilepsy but discovers that he has unsuspected powers and can play a crucial role in the coming conflict, for good or evil.
Again, as in his earlier work, Wilson makes the solution to the problem he poses depend on the hero, Owen Grey’s, ability to love and empathize with his fellow creatures, both entirely meat-based and partially artificial. There are plenty of finely-done action sequences where we see Owen explore his hybrid nature and learn that he can still be human and humane. The book is written in the unitary first person, unlike Robopocalypse, which was a multi-POV faux “oral history” like the novel World War Z (a fine book which has nothing at all to do with the execrable move of the same name aside from the title and the name of an important character). This point of view gives us a better understanding of the inside of Owen’s head, where most of the deeper action in the book takes place.
I should say that Wilson is a much better writer now than he was in Robopocalype, which suffered from first-timer’s syndrome, often seen in science fiction where solid writing skills are not always given priority. Wilson uses language a lot more effectively in this work, both to trace the inner emotional development of his character and to describe the things he sees and does in the world. A battle scene between three of the most highly-amped characters in a decayed urban landscape is especially exciting. However, there is still some work to do. As is unfortunately common in science fiction writing, Owen’s principal romantic interest, Lucy, doesn’t get developed very well. Her son, Nick, seems much more three-dimensional than she. Women are present in this story as motivators for the central character: one dies at the beginning to start him on his voyage and another, Lucy, is his motivation for continuing the struggle after all seems lost. Wilson’s plotting is fine, certainly maintaining the willing suspension of disbelief during the reading. At the end of the story, or more accurately, while I was sitting in the maquis down the street thinking about the story, came the “hey, wait a minute” moment. The discrimination against “amps” in the story is possible because all amps have an external port for their neural amplifier in their temple. However, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why the service port has to be visible, at least from the way Wilson describes the technology. Why couldn’t you put the port somewhere on the person’s chest where it would be normally covered by clothing? Make it easier for the individual to get at it anyway… Just a minor quibble, and since the entire conflict in the story depends on everyone’s ability to see at first glance that someone is an “amp” or a “pure”, this was an important plot element.
The visibility of the external port makes this book a story about race, to some degree. The camps established for amps by the government as the conflict heats up resemble Nazi or Soviet camps in the 1930s (they don’t quite make it to being death camps, thanks to the hero, so not the Nazi camps of the 1940s). The slums where amps live before the big roundup sound a lot like ghettos in contemporary America – although they are located in suburbs or rural trailer parks. The books makes direct reference to the classic Brown v. Board of Education case in the first chapter when the Supreme Court finds that, because amplification is not an inborn characteristic, schools are permitted to discriminate against amped students. The book also plays with different American versus world-wide ideas of fairness when it portrays a BBC news analysis story wondering why the Americans are so upset about this issue when in Europe, amps are widely used and generally paid for by government health care systems.
All in all, a thoughtful, well-written, exciting story that will hold the reader’s attention for a day or more at least. I read it in about six hours, spent an evening and much of the morning thinking about issues it raised, and took an hour or so to write this review. Good value for a $15 book – that I actually got out of the embassy library for free. Because I’m a cheapskate…
And much love to Phillip and all my dear family on this day and all days.