Friday, January 09, 2015

What We're Reading: Speculative Fiction


Where is the future that we were all promised in the 1950s and 1960s? Jet packs! Flying cars! Cures for terminal diseases! Artificial Intelligence! Extended lifespans, increased abilities and prolonged youth through genetic engineering! Clean, renewable and cheap energy sources!

For decades, the popular view of the future included all of these things, and more. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, shows commercially run interplanetary travel and the self-defensive A.I. HAL 9000 (who has clearly never heard of Isaac Asimov’s "Three Laws of Robotics"!). It’s 2014 (or 2015) and we still don’t have those things! What happened to the future we were all waiting/hoping for? Daniel Suarez provides a provocative possibility in Influx.

Jon Grady is a physicist on the verge of a major breakthough. He has determined how to mirror, or reflect, gravity! It is a discovery that will fundamentally alter our understanding of the universe. On the evening that he runs a demonstration for his investors, Grady’s laboratory is overrun by a technophobic terrorist group. They claim Grady’s device is “an affront to God” and that it, and the entire team, must be destroyed. Grady sees a blinding light as the bombs detonate. 

The next instant, Grady finds himself in an office. He is in the Bureau of Technology Control. They are a government agency whose mission is to prevent social upheaval as a result of technological advances. And they fulfill their mission at any cost, by using the technology they have gathered for the last 50 years. Grady is offered a chance to join the BTC, and continue his work using the latest technologies available, but when he resists he is sent to a prison run by a team of AI inquisitors created to hold the geniuses who refuse to join the BTC. The prison is a nightmare, both physically and psychologically. But it is also a fatal flaw in the BTC’s strategy. It turns out that great minds really do think alike when confronted with a common enemy. Can the combined resources of so many geniuses gathered together, aligned against common foe, allow them to overcome the BTC and its implementation of their own discoveries?

In Influx, Daniel Suarez explains why it seems like smart phones may be the most significant technological leap since NASA landed men on the moon in 1969. The scenario presented is not only disturbing, but completely believable (which ups the disturbing factor even more). The characters are well drawn and relateable, if not always completely understandable. (For instance, the protagonist, Jon Grady, experiences what is known as synesthesia. It is a real condition and in the book, it causes Grady to experience music, numbers and arithmetic equations as colors. It is a concept that, while a bit difficult to understand completely, is fascinating nonetheless.) And the science presented in the book seems sound and makes even the wildest devices presented in the book seem possible.

While Influx explores the impact of scientific developments on our culture, and whether or not we’re ready for some of the advanced technologies about which we dream, it is also a high-stakes, page-turning thriller that includes plans for world domination, prison breaks, political intrigue and secret headquarters, all with rays guns (of different types!), flying cars and lots of other devices we all still dream about having and using! There is also plenty of science! Influx is a thought-provoking novel and an enjoyable adventure as well! Now, when do we get the flying cars and robots???

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