What It’s About
In the near future, humans have found myriad ways to augment themselves. These new developments are both feared and anticipated, used and abused. A fragile balance of power lies between those who would explore the limits of transhumanist technologies and those who would limit and regulate it. When a new street drug gives people the ability to connect empathically and telepathically, however, the two forces are forced to come to a head.
Why I Think You’d Like It
As far as my personal tastes go, this is the gold standard for hard sci-fi. As much as I enjoy SF elements justified with “because it’s cool,” there is something special about intensely researched, maximally plausible science fiction. The only reason I don’t read more of it is that, too often, the characters aren’t people. For me personally, that’s an absolute dealbreaker.
Ramez Naam was a computer programmer and posthumanist philosopher long before he started writing fiction. He knows his stuff. But what I love most is how alive his characters are. He has an enormous cast to juggle; not quite to the George R. R. Martin level, but to the level of someone who has his picture on their vision board. Despite that, every one has their own distinct voice. He shows you who looks for the exits first when they enter a room, and who wanders over to the paintings on the wall, who defines themselves in relation to their past and who obsessively imagines the future, who spends most of their time admiring others and who calculates the best way to use others, and who barely thinks of other people at all. All of that happens so naturally that it took me a while to realize just why I had such an easy time keeping track of whose head I was in. This book gave me revelations on how to write characters.
I also love that, although he has his own thoughts on whether or not transhumanist evolution would be a good thing, he avoids simply dividing his cast into heroes and villains. There are characters who horrifically abuse technology that he clearly loves, and there are characters who have painfully sympathetic reasons for opposing it. While he successfully brings you around to his side, he does so without resorting to strawmen or other cheap narrative tricks. Or at least, he did with me; I think even if you’re not totally convinced, you’ll still enjoy the book, which is a testament to how well he explores the idea.
He also does representation exactly the way I think all authors should. The women all have goals that don’t revolve around men and relationships, and Bechdel’s Test is passed every few pages, with the natural ease that should be normal. Some people are randomly queer because the real world has random queer people. It starts out on the West Coast, and the characters come from an accurate variety of backgrounds. When they travel to Thailand, most of the new characters are Thai. That shouldn’t be remarkable, but you know what you mean. We’ve all seen the story set in a foreign country yet no important person is actually from there. I don’t know how accurate, say, the Thai culture is, but I can say that everybody was a person first, with gender/sexuality/ethnicity being just one among many pieces making up who they are.
All of this plays beautifully into the plot. He is telling a story about a fundamental reshaping of humanity, and to tell that story right, capturing humanity itself is essential. He absolutely nails it.
It is a fairly intense book. Many factions are violent, and there are plenty of character deaths. Even when there is no actual fight scene, the threat of violence usually present.
He also explores the emotional and psychological abuses of this technology. This includes personality rewriting and taking over other people’s body. There are references to the technology being used for sexual abuses. It’s one case where I actually thought it was justified by the story. I hate it when rape is just treated as a requirement to make a story Gritty And Realistic(TM). But when violations of bodily autonomy and consent are an issue intregal your story, not acknowledging sexual violence would be a problematic oversight. One thing I appreciated was that these uses mostly happen offscreen. It mentioned as a reality and recalled as part of a few character’s backstories, but he never sucks you into a graphic scene.
There are also explicit sex scenes, but the only thing that’s portrayed as sexy is enthusiastic consent. There is one scene that might be triggering; a man is trying to hook up with a woman, and he has used a behavior modifying program to get over his awkwardness in flirting. A bug in the program causes him to lose control of his body. This is not portrayed as sexy, but equal parts scary and embarrassing. Neither of them suffer any long term harm, and if you want you can skip to the next line break without missing anything important.
Also there’s swearing, drugs and alcohol. Yeah, it’s definitely a grown-up book.