Anyone, Charles Soule (Harper Perennial 978-0-06-289063-4, $21.99, 432pp, hardcover) December 2019
Alas for me, I have not yet had a chance to read Charles Soule’s well-regarded debut novel from 2018, The Oracle Year. But I have certainly enjoyed his clever, inventive, and exciting comics scripting, on such titles as Swamp Thing, Red Lanterns and She-Hulk. So I came to his sophomore book, Anyone, expecting a treat, and I certainly was not disappointed. It’s a well-conceived, well-executed thrill ride with some philosophical heft as well.
The “SF power chord” that Soule is employing is that of scientifically based mental possession: the overlaying of one mind atop another, with suppression of the original tenant. (This should be distinguished from a very similar novum, the implantation of, or prior existence of, a second consciousness alongside the original mentality, sharing a skull. Examples of the latter include Silverberg’s To Live Again, Matt Ruff’s Set This House in Order, Mike Carey’s Someone Like Me, and Hal Clement’s Needle.) The groundbreaking and definitive instance of Soule’s chosen trope is, of course, Robert Silverberg’s chilling short story “Passengers.” And a recent iteration actually occurred in Soule’s other world of comics: the “Superior Spider-Man” saga, in which Doc Ock inserted his thought patterns into Peter Parker’s head.
But unlike the Silverberg story, where possession was the work of aliens, Soule’s use of the theme involves strictly human technology, thus allowing him to delve deeply into the societal and moral ramifications of such a practice.
We start in the present, with the accidental discovery of the ability to superimpose one’s personal gestalt atop a host brain. Our scientist heroine, Gabby White, is working with optogenetics, the ability to trigger cellular changes in the brain with pulses of laser light. She’s aiming to cure Alzheimer’s, but her current experiment goes wrong, and she finds herself staring out of the eyes of her husband. His mind is nowhere apparent, and her own body is lying comatose.
Chapter 2 jumps twenty-five years forward, to a world where personality transfer is standard operating procedure. (This dual-timetrack narrative will continue, in a very rewarding interleaved narrative fashion, for the rest of the book, with a few interstitial chapters set at different intervals.) The “flash” technology is used for work and recreation, for business and pleasure, in a thousand different ways which Soule has ingeniously contrived, down to nth-order implications. And of course there’s an outlaw side to the tech, the “darkshare” biz, where you hire out your body for whatever nefarious purposes the illicit renter has in mind.
Our focus here is a mysterious young woman named Annami, who keeps a deliberate low profile. Although she has a good job working for the omnipotent flash corporation dubbed “Anyone” (run by an oligarch named Stephen Hauser), she needs lots of money for some unspecified purpose. So she’s gone over to taking assignments from the darkshare side. But doing so has, through a complex set of circumstances which Soule milks for suspense, exposed her very existence to Hauser. He realizes that Annami is in actuality a certain woman he has been seeking–and not in a pleasant way–for years. He sends deadly killers out to capture her.
Back in the present, we follow Gabby—restored to her own body—as she works frantically to control her discovery and possibly use it to better global conditions. But her capitalist sponsor is a man named Hendricks, and he proves to be a ruthless and egomaniacal bastard who has no intention of letting Gabby profit—or even remain free as a potential rival.
And so the two stories move forward at breakneck speed in alternate chapters, raising of course the enigma of exactly how the world of twenty-five-years-plus arose out of the Gabby-Hendricks situation, since neither of them appear to have survived into that era. As the events of Gabby’s timeline bring us closer to Annami’s era, the connections become clearer and clearer, until it all locks together brilliantly. I must say that Soule kept me guessing almost to the moment of revelation. I twigged maybe a chapter earlier.
The vibe and implications of this novel share a lot with that of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon series. If you recall that scenario, people could be uploaded permanently into new blank-minded bodies. This soul-jumping from one vacant new “sleeve” to another did not however involve the moral implications of Soule’s scenario, where permanent possession means the extinction of the host.
Additionally, Soule’s cynical and grim take on corporate malfeasance and ethically compromised antiheroes also resonates with Morgan’s novels—although Gabby White is no mercenary like Takeshi Kovacs. Yet she and her enemies all exhibit questionable behavior, with Gabby, however, earning our respect and sympathy by emerging as definitely less compromised than her peers in the end.
There’s also a great van Vogtian flavor to the plot, with nothing and no one being what they initially seem, and with mad recomplications of action every few chapters. The climax is particularly full of reversals and surprises.
Soule has produced a book which adheres scrupulously to one of the primal recipes for great science fiction: conceive of a single major change, then plumb every speculative aspect of it, through the vehicle of vivid characters and taut action across numerous venues. Why, it’s almost as if his head were inhabited by several elder giants of the genre!
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