Tuesday, August 7, 2012

"Amped" by Daniel H. Wilson

I thoroughly enjoyed Wilson's first novel, Robopocalypse, a fun and action-filled account of the war between man and robot. It wasn't particularly novel or thought-provoking, but, like a good summer blockbuster, I had a great time reading it. Wilson's most recent book, Amped, is more ambitious in the themes and issues it addresses, but unfortunately it's also less successful.

In the world of Amped, certain individuals have chosen to be implanted with neural devices. Some of these devices cure medical problems, like seizures, or improve brain function for mentally retarded children. Others enhance children with slight difficulties, such as the auto-focus implant, which can turn a distracted kid into an academic whiz. As the book begins, conflict is simmering between "amps" and "reggies" (people without the implant), who claim amps are being unfairly advantaged. The Supreme Court essentially rules that amps don't have legal rights, and a fierce anti-amp backlash emerges, led by Senator Joseph Vaughn of the Pure Human Citizens Council. Our protagonist, Owen, is a teacher with an implant to stave off seizures, but as he's forced on the run, he learns his father, a doctor, actually implanted him with secret military technology. Owen joins other amps living out West as war between amps and reggies brews.

Firstly, there's some interesting stuff here. There's the issue of technological enhancements and the ethical questions that come along with them. How much is too much? Is there a point where people are no longer human? Do we create two tiers of citizens if some people are amped and others aren't? There's also interesting legal questions, particularly around the Supreme Court's ruling (which, for example, says that because amps are mentally superior, "reggies" are essentially handicapped in any dealings with them, making contracts unfair). Then there are the social issues about the way we treat people who are different. But, none of these interesting questions take center stage in the novel.

Instead, we get Owen on the run, eventually getting to the amp colony of Eden. There he meets Lyle, another military amp, and Lucy, whom Owen falls in love with, most likely because she's the only female character in the book. Owen learns to use his amp powers, but even though they make him a hard-core bad-ass fighter, the scenes are pretty dull. Meanwhile the reggies go all nuts about amps and become hate-spewing villains immediately. As we finally start to reach the end, we go through a dozen or so "twists" to the point where none of the evil guys make any sense. Oh, and in the end, everything's fine, and the answer to "is there a limit to how we should use technology?" is apparently "no."

The pace drags throughout and Owen is uniformly boring. This is actually a rare case where a movie version might be better than the book, as the fight scenes could be ramped up and listening to Owen's rambling inner monologue could be eliminated.

I listened to the audiobook version, which was fine, but nothing special. I'd recommend Wilson's Robopocalypse instead.

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