Daniel H. Wilson holds a PhD in Robotics, and writes cyber-centric fiction with the deep understanding and obsessive interest that you’d expect from the holder of such a degree. Robopocalypse, his novel about a war between humans and sentient machines, got a fair amount of press and obviously had a solidly researched foundation—but its flashes of brilliance came from small moments between well-drawn human characters.
When I picked up Amped, I had hoped that Wilson would take the next step with his character work. If he writes a story guided by strong characters—like Max Barry’s Machine Man—Wilson could become an outstanding novelist. Unfortunately, he’s riding hard in the wrong direction. Amped features a terrific premise, but squanders it with a mediocre plot and downright boring characters.
The premise goes like this: in a near-future America, cybernetic brain implants help brain-damaged or mentally challenged people have a normal life—and they make normal people into geniuses. A hyper-conservative Senator campaigns rambunctiously against “amps,” the derisive name given to people with these implants. Soon the Senator gets a series of laws passed that legalize discrimination against amps, and then essentially strip away amps’ citizenship.
It’s an interesting concept, founded on the fact that implantation is a choice, and so discrimination against self-selected amps is different than discrimination against people for involuntary qualities like race. Of course, it’s not terribly different than discrimination on the basis of religion, but Amped falls apart long before it hits that hurdle.
Our hero, or at least our main character, is Owen Gray, a schoolteacher whose father was an implant designer and engineer. As a child, Owen suffered an accident that left him brain-damaged. His father designed a unique, highly powerful amp for him, one that healed his brain and also holds significant powers, if Owen can find the key that unlocks his amp’s full power.
Owen is about as nondescript as a character can get. He’s a generic good guy, who hates conflict but gets thrown into the middle of a brewing war between amp and normal people. Once in the middle of it, Owen finds out how to turn his amp on and literally fights his way through—punching and kicking. He flees a false arrest warrant and winds up in a trailer park full of amps, surrounded by amp-haters. He turns his amp on to save people, and then eventually must use it to save all amps everywhere.
There are several problems with this plot development. There’s the problem of essentially throwing away an interesting premise, wasting the central ethical question by turning it into nothing more than a backdrop for a paint-by-numbers action-movie plot.
Then there’s the problem that, in a story about discriminating against people for the choices they make, the main character makes no real choices. He gets backed into a fight because of his amp, which his father implanted in him after he was in an accident. That would be a fine backstory in another book, but in this one it destroys the substance of the discrimination-against-voluntary-augmentation theme, because it makes Owen an involuntary amp.
Worst of all is Owen’s blandness. I can tell you almost nothing that Owen Gray likes or wants. He wants, I guess, for one section of the populace not to commit genocide against another, as any decent human being would. He likes, supposedly, the one woman in the narrative, who is herself featureless. In fact, the only distinguishing feature of Owen’s personality is his amp.
But that’s not nearly enough. Wilson writes frequent passages about how implants amplify the personality of their user. It’s true, in a weird way: when those users are uninteresting, the implants magnify that feeling and add no life of their own.
Instead of creating good characters or situations, Wilson spends his energy overpolishing his descriptionary prose. For instance:
Flames are consuming the trailer from the outside in. The sounds has changed from a wind-fueled whoosh to a meaty chuckle.
Wilson’s a good stylist, but these gems of phrasing wind up underlining how crappy his characters are, and how monotonous his plot. I still think Wilson has the chance to be a really good novelist, but he’s moving in the wrong direction. I’ll be watching for his next novel, but it’ll have to have a really good premise to get me to actually read it.