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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
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
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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