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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Amped, by Daniel H. Wilson (hardcover, $25.95)

Daniel H. Wilson has one of the most creative minds around. He crafts a story good enough to be scientifically valid and adds human elements to make it relatable.

Wilson's last book was Robopocalypse, a book I thoroughly enjoyed and apparently so did Stephen Spielberg because he's making a movie out of it. In that book it was mostly man versus machine or machine versus machine. In Amped, man and machine are one. Science has advanced enough that many human ailments are alleviated by brain implants. The hero of Amped, Owen Gray, has epilepsy. His implant suppresses the seizures; his natural system has been amplified.

It's not just people like Owen who have been amped to control physical disorders. Others have been amped up because they were slower mentally. The cruelty, Owen informs us at the start, is that it replaces one problem with another. Children who have been amped to be intellectually competitive are still ostracized, but this time for their smarts.

"We're tool-makers born and bred and even if you don't believe in anything else, you'd better believe in that. Because that's human nature," Owen, the narrator of Amped, says. For better or worse. And the scales are being tipped towards worse.

A terrifying movement is picking up steam across America. Led by Senator Joseph Vaughn, President of the Pure Human Citizens Council, amped citizens are becoming targets of discrimination. How can un-amped humans, they ask, compete with the superior implanted monsters? It's just not fair. So Amps are being herded and contained in a not-so-subtle twinning of what happened to Jews during World War II. Furthermore, a scary group of ex-military men are fighting back. These men possess military-related, state-of-the-art enhancements, courtesy of the government. Somewhere along the line something went wrong, the men were released, and they now are accused of terrorist acts against "Reggies," i.e., "regular" people.

So why doesn't Owen simply have the hardware removed:

"These tools we love so much have burrowed under our skin like parasites. They're in our brains now, our joints and organs. Crouching behind our eyeballs and clinging to our sinuses. Making us smarter and stronger and always, always more dependent."

Owen's father, a doctor who performed implant surgery, is dead. One of his last messages to Owen was that if anything happened, he should head for Oklahoma and Jim Howard. Owen finds Jim in a run-down trailer park inhabited by Amps and their families. Jim is a genius-level programmer and scientist, but each day he does construction work to survive. Along with the other residents of the trailer park, they try hard to keep a low profile. Then Lyle Crosby, one of the ex-soldiers appears, and he brings havoc with him.

The emphasis is not on action, although there's a lot of that. It's on what a "good" person would do versus what he could do. The same philosophical question is posed here as in Robopocalpyse: What does it take to be a person -- an individual, sentient being, capable of deciphering right and wrong and making choices from that point? It is the way Wilson poses the question and the way he depicts Owen's dilemma that elevates this story.

I enjoyed the fact that Owen is a regular person, a teacher on the run from a false accusation. He doesn't know a kung fu kick from kung pao chicken. He has a tender heart and is earnest.

The story isn't overloaded with "tech-speak." You don't have to learn a new language, labor to relate to the setting, or try to spot red herrings. This story is what it seems: one man, with an implant that simply makes him more of who he is, trying to stop the craziness.

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