Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Cyborgs are Coming . . . or You can Make Your Own

A couple of days ago I came across an article about a science kit that allows kids to turn cockroaches into iPhone-Controlled cyborgs. My first reaction was to check the post date and make sure it wasn't April 1. But the kit is apparently not a joke and really does allow you to connect an electronic device to a cockroach and then control the bug from your iPhone. It kind of disgusts me, but I can't decide exactly why. There seem to be a lot of choices.

But for today here's the point: if you can buy a toy that allows kids to play with neuro-surgical implants, then the world depicted in Daniel Wilson's Amped may not be terribly far away.

Amped is a near-future story of human brain implants. The device, sold as Autofocus, enhances brain focus but can also be used for other brain-enhancing functions. Mostly, implants are used to treat ADD, epilepsy and other neurological brain disorders as well as repair brain damage. But they make anyone who wears them smarter.

Owen Gray, a high school teacher, has an implant which was installed by his neurosurgeon father, but to the best of Owen's knowledge it doesn't do anything except prevent epileptic episodes. The implant becomes a problem, however, when public opinion turns against the implanted, known as “amps,” and the Supreme Court revokes most of the rights of implanted persons in the U.S. Violence erupts and Owen attempts to escape to his father's lab. Just before the lab is destroyed, killing Owen's father, Owen learns that his father went all mad-scientist on him and the amp in Owen's head is military grade with “something extra,” turning his mind and body into a deadly weapon. All he has to do is activate it.

But Owen doesn't know how to activate it and though he is not sure he wants to learn he flees to Eden Oklahoma, an amp refuge where his father has promised he'll find people who can help him.

The concept is fascinating, but the book ultimately fails. Wilson's success in his previous book, Robopocalypse, came in part from adopting multiple points of view, some of them robots and some of them people who had become startlingly strange from living with robots or battling them. In Amped, Wilson tells the story pretty much from Owen's point-of-view and Owen is just not that interesting. On top of that, many of the other characters speak primarily in speeches, arguing political positions around implantation. While many of the arguments are intriguing, the story bogs down in polemics over and over again. I kept hoping for something similar to what I found in Robopocalypse—people radically changed by technology—but for some reason Wilson stays away from that kind of exploration, despite the technology being buried directly in his character's heads.

Maybe what we need is a story from the point-of-view of a cyborg cockroach . . .

This review is based on an electronic book checked out from a public library.

For another similarly themed book try M.T. Anderson's Feed.

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