Paul Di Filippo reviews Stephen Baker
If two incidents constitute a trend—as they surely do, according to the careless metrics of desperate journalists such as myself—then science fiction is in for a spate of books in which the common furniture of the genre gets a fresh, down-to-the-roots reconceptualizing. What exactly do I mean by this?
Consider William Forstchen’s recent Pillar to the Sky, in which he takes the common, decades-old trope of the space elevator—presented nowadays in most books that have cause to employ it as an offhand bit of assumed technology used mostly to further a plot—and foregrounds it, examining the initial creation of such a device in fresh, complex detail. This recontextualizing or rethinking or inversion of background/foreground is something that I think is a very useful tool, in limited doses. I’m not sure we need to reinvent the wheel for every item in the SF toolbox. But with a few select ones where the hard edges have been smoothed down to a featureless nub, the technique proves stimulating.
Such a literary tactic often appears appealing when new developments in the real world mandate a rethink. In the case of the space elevator, new progress in materials science has made the prospect seem more do-able. And fresh economic and environmental worries also serve to propel Forstchen’s narrative.
In the case of Stephen Baker’s debut novel, The Boost, whose focal trope is that of brain implants, the impetus for tackling this bit of standard cyberpunk gear—again, used nowadays mostly as off-the-shelf background hardware—is not, I believe, technical progress, but social and cultural events. The science of inserting computers into the human brain has not really advanced much in the past three decades since such implants were a common feature of Gibsonian SF. No recent headline has really demanded we prep ourselves for some imminent deployment of such devices.
But what has happened since the cyberpunk days is the advent of mobile computing, in the form of smart phones and tablets and similar gadgets. In effect, these exterior devices mimic or mirror or foreshadow actual brain implants. And what the usage of such devices has shown us is troubling. The ways they have changed face-to-face communicating, mating rituals, recreational pursuits and a dozen other aspects of social and civic behavior is sometimes encouraging, but more often, to my mind, highly disturbing. There are now confirmed instances of cell phone addiction, and individual usage rates of 150 app interactions daily. Think about it: that’s multiple screen swipes roughly every ten minutes of one’s entire waking interval, day after day after day.
Reading The Boost, one discovers that Baker plainly knows all this and is intent on giving us a stefnal allegory about our contemporary madness. But that goal does not stand in the way of a rousing, idea-packed adventure story from this highly competent beginning novelist, whose CV as a tech writer for BusinessWeek has obviously prepped him well to speculate on cutting edge technology and its impact.
The year is 2072, and every single citizen who is not an outcast “wild” human has “the boost” in his or her head: a gadget no bigger than a fly’s wing, implanted in youth, that offers virtual reality, augmented reality, mind-to-mind communications, life-logging, auxiliary memory and general internet access. With free annual software upgrades! “Every year, some 430 million Americans wake up one day in the middle of March feeling different, smarter, snappier.”
But that upgrade is now the source of trouble. This year’s download contains a secret back door inserted by the Chinese engineers, Gate 318 Blue, allowing who-knows-what kinds of hacking. Learning of this, our hero, Ralf Alvare of the federal Upgrade Department, finds his life immediately overturned and in peril before he can even act. He’s kidnapped and his boost is surgically removed.
Escaping with the help of a mysterious Asian man, now a helpless “wild human” himself, he goes on the run, hooking up for assistance with sometime paramour Ellen (who happens to sport the fashionable “Artemis” somatype). They head to El Paso to meet with Ralf’s brother Simon, who might offer some solutions.
But on their trail, under the command of despotic, ninety-three-year-old billionaire John Vallinger, is the oversized hired killer named Oscar Espinoza. The trio of Ellen, Rafe and Simon eventually flee over the border, into Ciudad Juárez, where everyone is a wild human. There, they encounter the local crime kingpin, Don Paquito, whose old-fashioned illicit network—featuring an actual newspaper, of all antique things!—might just offer a solution to their problems and to the larger dilemma of the tainted upgrade.
Now, before we begin to look at Baker’s commentary on the nature of the boost—and by extension, our always-wired cell phone culture—let’s give him props for sheer storytelling. His tale is rendered in light, easy, smooth prose which walks the tragicomic tightrope brilliantly and deftly. There’s a definite Donald Westlake vibe to such elements as put-upon hit man Espinoza, who relishes becoming wild because it frees him from his overseer, Vallinger’s hireling, the virtual-porn entrepreneur George Smedley, allowing Espinoza to luxuriate in Mexico with lots of meals of delicious goat. Then there’s the intriguing love story between Ellen and Ralf; the surprising family dynamics of the Alvare clan; the lifestyle of being a beautiful Artemis woman; international realpolitik; and a host of other non-tech aspects of late-21st-century life.
But the most substantial aspect of this adventure is Baker’s dissection of what the boost does to baseline humans, who are deemed Neanderthals and essentially disabled compared to the boost users. Baker catalogs the dismaying shifts: people can be rudely having virtual sex while seeming to converse with you. They are content with eating tasteless protein pills and allowing the boost to fool their sensorium with artificial tastes. Eye-to-eye contact is painful. Ralf to Ellen: “It’s easier to manage memories of you…than to manage the relationship in real time.”
Perhaps the core speech occurs when older brother Simon and Ralf are talking about their different childhood experiences of the boost, echoing some of the same thoughts that Rudy Rucker has blogged about, concerning simulations versus nature.
Simon goes on to describe the generation gap that he still feels with his little brother. He and his friends grew up with their experiences grounded in the wild brain… “Then they come along and give us virtual apps that were just the crudest version of reality… When we were disappointed, they called us Luddites… But your generation was different… You accepted the virtual as real.”
And there’s the theme in a nutshell. Reality versus simulation, solipsism versus mutuality, dominance by constructs versus unmediated interactions. This is certainly one of the biggest issues of our time, explored here with sophistication and insight.
One final observation on this novel: Stephen Baker comes from outside the genre, but is as proficient, savvy and adept as any prozine-trained acolyte of Campbell. Like Ernest Cline with Ready Player One, Kenneth Calhoun with Black Moon, Jennifer Egan with A Visit from the Goon Squad, Gary Shteyngart with Super Sad True Love Story, and any number of other allied “mainstream” books, he proves that SF is now truly a universal language accessible to anyone anywhere who is willing to learn it.