The whole universe of information is at your fingertips. The only evidence of intelligence is how well you utilize the system, multitasking and parsing information while chatting and even letting someone ride shotgun in your experiences. Genius itself would be redefined.
Then imagine it all disappeared. Could you remember what people told you without a digital archive of the conversation? How they look? Could you find your way home?
Few people wear a watch now, because almost everyone in the US has a phone. A watch is redundant. 60 years in the future, aside from a few people wearing them for retro decoration, they won't be made. If you lost technology, how would you even know what time it is?
What if it made you happy?
That's the premise of The Boost, a new novel by Stephen Baker (Tor Books). It's a world where Chinese technology is the cornerstone of globalized society. It's not some nonsensical closed system that defies believability, we know in the story there have clearly been policy debates about the increased presence of technology in our lives, government has implemented failsafes to protect American privacy. Basically, it is the biggest and most effective advertising platform imaginable and people are okay with that, if they get a lot of stuff for free - and it took decades to accomplish. But a developer has discovered there is an exploit built into a new upgrade of the Boost and it makes everyone vulnerable to an unlimited level of intrusion.
It's not a coincidence he finds this vulnerable gate, of course. In short order, his Boost is cut out of his head without his consent and then, bizarrely, he is free to go. But he hasn't had to use his 'wet brain' since he was a child so he isn't yet thinking about how he is strangely released by people who clearly wanted to silence him. Instead, the brilliant developer is suddenly mentally crippled, incapable of doing anything meaningful in a world where answers are found in milliseconds. How long does it take to get to where he needs to go to find answers? How far is it? The Boost is a competitive advantage in a global technology arms race and someone who has thrived in that world has suddenly become an unwilling Luddite.
And then we are off and running in the story. As you might guess, there are two kinds of stories happening at the same time. One is a mystery adventure and then other is the subtext of adjusting to a world the protagonists knew existed, but was whitewashed in stereotypes and public relations efforts designed to keep people wanting to stay connected to their technology.
If you are of a certain age and have read a bit, you have seen takes on this before, in lots of genres. Commercialization has been a concern since there were first commercials. In the 1960s, Ray Nelson authored a story where a man goes under hypnosis and awakens with the realization that Earth has been colonized by aliens using media and consumerism to control us. "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" - that is the deadline to fix things - even became the inspiration for John Carpenter's cult classic "They Live."
The Boost is counting down also, to when everyone in America with a Boost is going to get an upgrade, trusting that government is protecting them. Whereas in "They Live" the threat was external, aliens were sending signals to brains using mass subliminal messaging, and you could just take out the transmitter, the Boost is instead in each person, it is decentralized control by the cloud and not only did people sign up for it, they would revolt if they didn't have it.
The Boost is clearly an adventure story, but part of the futuristic speculation is what makes it fun.
Some things take an unexpected turn. We live in a world where, in defiance of Doomsday Prophets of the 1960s and '70s, food is cheap and plentiful. Poor people can afford to be fat for the first time in history. But what if any food can be anything you want? What would happen to agriculture? Food science might grind to a halt and real food might become an expensive pastime for elites. In the book, that has happened and people with a boost basically eat nutritional pellets and have an app that changes it to any dishes they want. Real food is just too costly and therefore it is not desirable.
Is there really a difference? The book never tackles that issue, it just is what it is. And that's a good thing.
In the hands of a lesser writer, the milieu would need to be the star, the landscape would be forced on you until you say 'Okay, we get it, the chip is addictive' but The Boost is never so heavy-handed. Instead, you see the world in subtle moments or snippets of conversation. It has its charms, and then it has its perversions.
"Without subtitles, her words make noise and then vanish" is a sentence early on. The protagonist is bored, frustrated and made helpless by what has happened to him and the way he is forced to experience things now. It is almost as if his cerebral cortex has been removed and he has no capacity for short-term memory. He is used to just a basic working memory that autonomically knows where to look and store and retrieve what he needs to function or be entertained. He's rudderless on a giant information ocean and can only react to other people who know what is happening. It is a terrific turn of phrase and the book is full of those.
Futuristic fanboys can idealize the Singularity but you can bet it will be a lot more like The Boost than anything written about in Utopian Ray Kurzweil fever dreams. You'll like that it tackles consumerism and the lure of free stuff without ever telling you that's what is happening.
On Twitter, Baker asked me which character I thought I was. I had no answer then and still don't, which might sound odd because identifiability is a key way to draw readers in. The reality is that I could see a little bit of myself in lots of them. Some of their actions would make no sense in a simpler type of story, but in the real world, people sometimes do things that make little sense. That complexity is a sign that the characters feel real and are therefore worth your wet brain time in an age where technology increasingly beckons.
Science 2.0 gives it:
4 out of 5 Bloggy's!