As he showed in his bestselling thriller Robopocalypse, Daniel H. Wilson can write. The Carnegie Mellon-trained roboticist, who wrote several books of humorous nonfiction before turning to fiction in 2011, has a voice and style very much like Stephen King. But unlike King, Wilson also has the chops to base the weird beings in his stories on hard science.
Robopocalypse, which Steven Spielberg is turning into a film scheduled for release in 2013, posits a world where robot helpers — and all the roboticized machines we come across every day that quietly, if dully, contain enough electronic brainpower to function on their own — come under the control of a self-aware supercomputer that tries to take over the Earth from humankind.
In his new novel Amped, Wilson creates a different scenario: reactionary political groups turn their ire against people who use electronic implants to make them normal, or even better than normal. Super-abled. Some of these implants control artificial limbs that give their users superhuman strength. Others, including the Neural Autofocus MK-4 for kids with attention deficit problems have the effect of raising their users’ IQ to top levels. Reacting to their unfair advantage, the Pure Pride movement succeeds in getting the Supreme Court to rule that implanted Americans do not have the same constitutional rights as other citizens.
Mobs immediately begin targeting anyone they suspect of being an “amp,” an amplified human. Twenty-nine-year-old Owen Gray sports a tell-tale plastic nub on his forehead, connected to a neural implant he received after suffering brain injury in an accident. But although the implant didn’t change his abilities or personality (or so he believed), he finds himself wanted by the authorities along with a rogue squad of ex-soldiers who took part in an experimental military operation involving the mysterious Zenith implant.
As a long-time robot fan, I loved Robopocalypse, which was all the more fun because I was familiar with the different kinds of technology from reading Wilson’s earlier books, How to Survive a Robot Uprising and How to Build a Robot Army. Wilson’s wide-ranging cast of characters were believable, and its constant change of scene from Japan to the Arctic to London to Oklahoma to New York helped keep the action moving along.
Amped, by contrast, only gives us the American view. And instead of humanity uniting against machines, it’s neighbor fighting neighbor. The conflict in the story is driven by politics and culture, not technology gone awry (at least, not from the point of view of the “good guys”). Ironically, the amps themselves, who are accused of using technology to gain an unfair advantage, mainly live in trailer parks and ghettos. They’re not backed by scientists and high tech labs; in fact, we see them struggle to keep their implants maintained and functioning without the equipment and facilities they need to survive.
So Amped relies a lot more on character and politics, and less on technology. Wilson’s ability to make his characters talk like real people is refreshing. But the wheelings and dealings that lead to the government crackdown on amps is less fully fleshed out, and the motivations of the haters is less clear — given that they’re all just one medical emergency away from needing some amplification themselves. Still, the issues raised in Amped are fascinating, and the book is fast-paced and easy to read. For hardcore sci-fi readers, Amped offers plenty of juicy details to savor.