Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Our technology is what makes us strong. And it's what makes us dangerous."

4 out of 5 stars

I'm having a hard time writing a review for Amped. On the one hand, it's an engrossing look at the human condition. What makes us human? What happens when that definition changes? Will humans ever evolve past their fear of that which is different? While the book may not provide answers to those questions, it does provide a glimpse into a near future when those questions come into play in the most visceral and dramatic of fashions.

The story revolves around an issue which is coming into play even today: Implants. With mechanical parts in our bodies, taking the place of our hearts, our limbs, can we still consider ourselves human beings? How far can we go in replacing our parts with machines before we stop being human? In this near-future scenario, Daniel H. Wilson tells the story of amplified humans, persons with a brain implant known as a Neural Autofocus, placed there to help control any number of issues from seizures and degenerative neurological diseases, to learning disabilities and psychological disorders. This implant, though, is more than just a computer chip plunked into the brain; it burrows into the brain, into the body, into every system, continually learning how to interact with the human into which it was placed, continually improving that human. Simply turning it off or removing isn't an option, because the network the implant has created remains. These amplified humans, or “amps,” are identified by the maintenance ports on their temples and find themselves easy targets of prejudice due to the fear their amplified state engenders, and eventually come under fire from conservative groups, looked upon as something beyond human and therefore beyond human law. Bit by bit, rights are taken away until amps find themselves without identity, without protection. In scenes reminiscent of the degradation of Jews in the lead-up to WWII, Wilson depicts amps losing their homes, their families, their rights, even their lives, as their ability to exist is eroded, unalienable right by unalienable right. Soon, lines are drawn between “reggies,” non-implanted humans, and “amps” in a war which will define the next stage of human evolution. Wilson paints a compelling picture of the fear, the mistrust, the anger and hostility generated by non-implanted humans towards amps. After all, amps are smarter, faster, basically an improved version of humanity. Implanted children outperform regular children in school--talk about skewing the Bell curve!--implanted adults can perform jobs the non-implanted can't--which is just an amplified (hardy har har) version of the current argument towards immigrants. In fact, the whole novel is just a slightly altered portrayal of what we're arguing about today concerning technology and humanity. And it's a very convincing imagining of how quickly this argument can degenerate into hate and how ugly the results would be, especially once crooked politics are introduced into the matter.

On the other hand, while the book contains many satisfying action scenes, and moments of tension and drama, it's a lightweight when it comes to character depth and motivation. The leading man, Owen is so nondescript, when other characters say his name, I'm startled because I've forgotten that that's what he's called. Owen is a sympathetic leading man, trying to do his best while navigating the world which Wilson has created, but all the same he's rather blah. There's a romance thrown in involving Owen which has a slapdash, last minute feel to it, and other than the fact that Lucy Crosby, the woman Owen falls in love with, has the classic “She struck me dumb with her beauty” appearance, there's no real explanation for why we should believe these two belong together. It doesn't help that Lucy is little more than a cardboard cutout, a place holder, a stock female character from fiction plot Template A. There's some story that Lyle Crosby, Lucy's brother and the ringleader of amp rebellion, ***SPOILER ALERT*** not to mention a psychopath and the catalyst behind the antagonism between amps and reggies,***END SPOILER*** throws Lucy into Owen's path simply to get a feel for how malleable Owen will be and how useful to Lyle's plans. Yet, as with the relationship between Owen and Lucy, this subterfuge is just kind of passed over. In fact, aside from the very vocal “bad guy,” Senator Joseph Vaughn, and the actual, behind-the-scenes bad guy (who becomes apparent early on in the novel), we don't really get a sense of who any of the characters are, what drives them, why we should care about what they do and what they think. And even with the "bad guys," their motivations are rather shallow. The only two characters who were well-drawn, having a bit of depth and likability to them, were Jim, a rather taciturn old man who is rather like the Obi-Wan Kenobi of Eden, Oklahoma, a refuge for Owen as well as other displaced amps, and Nick, an amped child who follows Owen around like a slightly off-kilter puppy, clicking away at his Rubik's Cube in unconscious movements.

Yet, I will say this, Owen's very "everyman" nature helps drive the point of this book home. Because, while Amped is certainly about what makes us human, the overwhelming issue is what we do with our humanity, with or without amplification. Lyle, the yang to Owen's yin, the two men opposite sides of the same coin, gives in to his implant, reveling in the change it brings to his humanity and looks upon it as the next step in human evolution. Yet by letting the machinery control him, Lyle loses something elementarily human: freedom of choice. Owen continually fights his implant, recognizing it as a tool which can and should be controlled, to be used at his discretion. Ultimately making Owen the greater evolved human of the two.  Which means, at the end of the day, despite the book's faults, it's still an entertaining, thought-provoking, and enthralling read.

Read June 5-15, 2012
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program June 19, 2012          

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