Review of Amped by Daniel H. Wilson

Title: Amped
Author: Daniel H. Wilson
Published: 05 June 2012
Publisher: Doubleday, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday
Genre: science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

In a near future, the world has cured many mental and physical disabilities using cybernetic enhancements. However, the technology doesn’t only correct dysfunction – it can also amplify people’s abilities, hence the term ‘amp’ for the enhancements and the people who possess them. In the United States however, religious groups and other conservatives have come to fear and hate amps.

Owen Gray is an amped highschool teacher who for some reason has blinded himself to these social developments, but suddenly the changes hit him like a sledgehammer. One of his students jumps from the roof of the school building after deciding that she no longer wants to live in a world that hates people like her. On his way home, Owen sees evidence of how anti-amp society has become, and before the end of the day he’s lost his job and his home because the government has revoked amps’ rights to enter into contracts.

Owen goes to see his father, the surgeon who gave him his amp in the first place. With things becoming more dangerous by the minute, Owen’s father reveals that his amp is not just for correcting epilepsy as Owen was made to believe. The truth is that Owen once suffered severe head trauma,  and to save his son’s life his father gave him “something extra” – stolen hardware that was powerful enough to compensate for Owen’s injuries. With the authorities coming to confiscate his research, Owen’s father has no time for explanations, but sends Owen to find a man named Jim who can tell him more.

So Owen goes on the run and travels to Eden, a trailer park that has become an uneasy haven for amps and the loved ones willing to stand by them. It’s there that he learns of a militant group of amps who want more than just equal rights. Owen is not certain that he wants to get involved, but with the powerful tech he’s carrying, he might be obliged – or forced – to take part in the fight.

Amped moves with blinding speed at the beginning of the novel and maintains a brisk pace throughout. One moment Owen is trying in vain to save a student from killing herself and the next he’s on the run after losing almost everything that defines his life as he knows it. It’s a quick, easy read, but not a particularly good one.

While the fast pace is nice, the downfall of Amped is that it’s too familiar a story to be really enjoyable or get a good rating. The story goes like this: A majority fears a minority for being different, and in this case also for being physically and mentally superior to other human beings. The first group reacts by making the second group socially inferior and institutionalising discrimination against them.

The oppressed minority – and the protagonist who represents them – is faced with the moral dilemma of whether or not to react with violence. It’s the obvious, natural reaction, since they are angry at being treated in a cruel manner and most people would agree that the oppressors deserve to have their heads kicked in. However, violence just plays right into the oppressor’s hands by making the oppressed look like the moral degenerates that society claims they are, thereby justifying further violence against them.

So, patient diplomacy or blood and bullets? Well, whatever your moral position, we all know which option is more entertaining. To make things easier on the characters and more palatable for the reader, circumstances force the protagonist to fight even though he’s not that keen on violence, and thus he gets to kick ass on the moral high ground.

And that pretty much sums up the plot of Amped. The tech and its social consequences are plausible, but the resulting story is conventional. No innovations, no great insights, real surprises. Owen is revealed to be the archetypal ordinary-man-turned-hero when his amp turns out to be top-secret military-grade stuff that turns him into a supersoldier. As a result there’s plenty of action, but sadly not much worth thinking about.

The novel focuses too much on martial capabilities, and not enough on more interesting things like super-smart amps (who apparently can’t come up with any ideas for dealing with this conflict) or the more day-to-day changes that amps would cause in society. For example, how would the job market change when amps can be so much smarter and stronger than normal people? Should amp children be allowed to compete with normal children in school? Wouldn’t normal people want amps too? It’s a shame that the book doesn’t get into these issues.

The only debate about the ethics of amps is in the crap that comes from extremists like the rednecks who love any excuse to beat the shit out of people without having to worry about the law, or Joseph Vaughn, who campaigns against amps in a bid for political power and uses religion to argue that amps aren’t human and constitute a threat to “the moral foundation that our civilization is built upon”. The novel mostly sticks to a simple black and white story of pro-amp vs. anti-amp where pro-amp = good and anti-amp = bad. There’s no sympathetic anti-amp character who’s just a normal person with reasonable concerns about this technology, only violent fanatics raving about human purity. There are some bad pro-amp characters but they’re portrayed as freaks with older or military tech that basically turned them into mutants and killing machines.

This kind of moral simplicity is boring. You need a few snags and snarls to get caught up in. On the whole, there was nothing about Amped that I found engaging enough for me to care much about the characters or the outcome of the story. The novel is decently written and its core idea is sound, but I think Wilson wasted its potential by letting it play out in such a conventional, uncomplicated manner.

 

Buy Amped at The Book Depository

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