A decade ago, the media was populated by “horror-lite” books and movies, inspired by Buffy and Angel, and imitating the commercial success of Twilight, to the extent that you can’t walk over to the Roku today, without tripping over a horror property. Inevitably, Sci-Fi, Horror’s nerdy cousin, would follow. CGI made it not simply possible, but sustainable business. Problem is, “Sci-Fi Lite,” or commercial sci-fi (in the vein of the ’50s pulps imported to the screen,) tends to rely a lot more on Fiction than Science. Which is too bad, because, as the late Carl Sagan often lamented, the preparation of young people in this country in the sciences is deplorable.
Technology, Science’s practical side, certainly seems to have taken over the mindspace of children and adolescents. But not in the way the futurists predicted. When I was a child of the 1970s, hot on the heels of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, and as George Lucas put out a little film called THX-1138, everyone thought that kids of my generation would all grow up to be computer geniuses. After all, I bought a TRS-80 with my own money. Right into high school, in the early ’80s (before Windows,) if one wanted a home computer to do something, one had to write a program, at the maddeningly patient prompt of a DOS cursor. And we did. Hell, it seemed a quantum leap over a typewriter.
Yet many 21st-century young people have shown no interest, to the extent that good IT folks and coders and programmers remain in high demand. Many humans would seem to prefer the route of Frank Poole in 2001: “A little lower Hal, a little more to the right,” the astronaut instructs the ship’s computer, as he reclines in a lounger curiously similar to the ones found in today’s cinemas. Computers and technology are meant to make life easier, not harder. Or so we think.
J.E. Brink doesn’t seem to agree. The Earth of the mid-21st century (not long from now,) in his novel Age of Eli‘s vision, is an extrapolation of our own: everyone has their gadgets and devices, of course, and internet connectivity has become universal and free, thanks to a grid of satellites orbiting the planet. No one questions the wisdom of this, until a global disaster provides teen-prodigy Warren Novatec with the opportunity to both solve the problem, and implant everyone with an even better version of the smartphone: a nano-robotic exoskeleton for the brain called QPU. This allows direct connection, through the net, with everyone else, but further benefits are promised: “enhancements” that allow a person abilities that seem superheroic.
Not everything works as promised, however: and this seems to be a perrenial human truth about our relationship to technology. After all, when domesticated, fire can heat your house and cook your dinner; when out of control, it can raze your home and your body.
The novel’s author reputedly works in solar energy, so it’s unsurprising that the narrative concerns itself with energy expenditure: the “powers” that the protagonists and antagonists use must be paid for, and recharged–and they take a heavy toll. You won’t see any CW/Supergirl feats of unlimited strength here (apparently the sun can also recharge her cells instantaneously, as well as infinitely.) In fact, Brink’s entire AI premise retains the ring of actual science, as predicted by cultural luminaries like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. Thematically, we have to wonder if all these “enhancements” are actually worth it–whereas, in ninety-percent of all comic-book-based fiction, it’s taken for granted (Stan Lee-based Spider-Man and X-Men material being notable exceptions.) And, to give Brink credit, the book resists becoming about feats of superhuman ability. It’s really about what happens to human relationships when metal and money come between people.
The title character, along with some others among Warren’s circle, as well as a few pockets of folks in the U.S., resist his inevitable takeover. Our society begins to resemble a fascist regime under a benevolent dictator, with all the losses of freedom that real-life developments like the continuing re-approval of the Patriot Act, and the dispersal of drones throughout the skies of the world, forbode. To call the book political allegory wouldn’t be to stretch its literary texture too thin, though the emphasis is often more on action and incident. Both adolescent and adult characters are varied and developed, and clearly awaiting a sequel. It seems to me that the “villian,” Warren, doesn’t emerge as evil, so much as misguided, and not without a hint of remorse. Brink never quite rolls over into the pit of comic-book simplicity* that other franchises do. I won’t spoil the climax, but I will say that, again, Brink eschews superheroics among his cast, in favor of the virtue of tactical retreat: “Live to fight another day.” And because the marketplace is filled with shows and books and movies that trivialize the difficulty and cost of actual war (aided by our government’s insulation of the U.S. population from our ongoing wars outside our hemisphere,) it’s refreshing that a YA novel should remind us that conflicts are usually resolved by sacrifice and compromise. And that, deaths aside, survivors of war are often scarred: physically and psychically.
For this reason, the novel–and presumably the series follow-up books–encourages a debate about whether we should whole-heartedly accept the self-driving cars, the Roombas and Alexas and other robots charging up for a place in our homes, the replacement of memory and books and first-hand research by Google searches and Wikipedia quasi-facts. Many sci-fi texts have posed the question: At what point does Artificial Intelligence become human? Brink asks the converse: at what point do we become robots? You will not be hard-pressed to find a person today wondering aloud, “what did we do before we had these things?”–speaking of a personal communications device. But perhaps the better question is, “What will we do when these things–utterly and irreversably–have us?”
Four and a half stars. Well done, J. E. Brink II!
*Not that all comic books are simplistic, but many are. For every villian as complex as Magneto, there exist a hundred megalomaniacs, mercenaries, and Joe Chills. An article for another time.