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Onyx reviews: Amped by Daniel H. Wilson

It should come as no great surprise to learn that Daniel H. Wilson, the author of Robopocalypse, has a doctorate in robotics. That book was about the rise of computer-containing machinery against mankind. His second novel is about a form of cybernetics. Scientists develop brain implants that rectify a number of medical disorders (epilepsy, for example), but which can also be used to improve cognitive thought. They make people smarter by fine tuning their brains. About half a million people have these implants when the book starts, and it’s obvious who they are because they have service shunts sticking out of their heads.

One of the first signs of discontent among the general populace takes place in schools, where “amped” kids are deemed to have an unfair advantage against “reggies”—regular people. Protagonist Owen Gray is a teacher who witnesses first-hand the fallout of this movement. Then the Supreme Court decides that, since the modification was voluntary, amped people don’t deserve special protection as a class, which means its okay to be prejudiced against them. 

Finally, the rules of contract law break down because the assumption that both parties are equally capable doesn’t apply. Amped people can’t enter into contracts, which nullifies employment, rental agreements, everything. Basically they become non-persons, almost overnight. Is this a credible development and a logical extrapolation? Much of the book's success depends on whether or not readers buy into this.

In either case, it's an interesting premise, to be sure. Wilson isn't satisfied, though, to stop there and explore all of the social implications of this new class of existence and its social issues. He adds to the mix a small group of hyper-amped people: a dozen men who have a special Zenith chip that makes them superhuman. Analogous to The Thing or The Hulk, in a way—they can tap into these chips on demand. They were designed for military operations, but were ultimately deemed too dangerous, so they are being hunted down and executed. 

Owen, the thirteenth person with a Zenith chip, turns out to be the son of the chip designer. He didn’t know until recently that he had this implant and he doesn't understand how to activate it, or the scope of its abilities. He ends up in a Mad Max-like enclave where amped people are mostly safe, so long as they don't venture out at night and go out in groups. He learns from another Zenith how to delve deeper and deeper into the chip. However, the rules of its operation are arbitrary and the five levels coincidentally correspond to Owen's needs at any given moment.

The science and its implications are interesting, and the big-picture social aspects are fascinating and credible, because they derive from known history: prejudice, bigotry, internment camps, athletes using artificial limbs competing in the Olympics, even the Occupy movement, but Owen's personal story is less compelling. The book's obligatory romance feels unmotivated and there are prolonged action sequences that ramp up the excitement quotient but are confusing in their orchestration. 

Wilson also relies on a form of shorthand to move the story forward, inserting news reports between chapters that dump information rather than reveal it through plot . He has a tendency to create novels that seem designed as ready-made screenplays, paying short shrift to character development and motivation. As a result, the book feels insubstantial, despite the big ideas it wants to explore.

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