I thought about the rating for this one for awhile, and a solid three stars doesn’t quite capture it. It’s better than that, but has some issues that I found…not frustrating….or off-putting exactly, but definitely distracting.
So we are in the future, 2144 to be exact, and the patenting of technology, medical research, information, and biotech is one of the driving features of our society. We follow a few different storylines here, both parallel and intersecting. We have Jack Chen, an underground medical researcher/gene coder who also smuggles reverse engineered patented drugs in order to flood the market with them. We also have Paladun and Elias, a bot and a human, sent undercover to unearth information about drug smuggling. Their investigation involves posing as would be whistleblowers/disgruntled drug scientists. The central issue is that a drug possibly reverse engineered (reng) by Jack has been killing people. It’s a “work drug” in that it provides positive stimulus in reaction to productivity…almost like a cocaine/adderall blend, and much to Jack’s dismay it’s being used pretty much like a straight stimulant.
So the good things about this book. It’s pretty well written and I think the world is mostly convincing and pretty rich. I would be interested in more books within this same world, but not necessarily within this same narrative. I found it a pretty convincing world. I also think the plot is pretty good. It reminds me a lot of some kind of split difference between Neal Stephenson and William Gibson (at least Neuromancer and Snow Crash) and definitely had throwback feel to it in that sense. I also think the future is a convincing version of what we might easily expect.
The bad or more so the annoying. So I know that Annalee Newitz has a PhD in English from a school in California, and it shows, because, I immediately recognized the use of “Jack” as a nickname for “Judith” as a little nod to the USC researcher Jack Halberstam, whose work in Queer studies and gender is really fascinating. That’s all fine.
But then, the subplot of Palladin, a robotic entity with a human brain implanted within the central core to recognize human emotion (still all fine) delving into the question of gender felt very forced into the narrative in a way that felt oddly outdated both for 2017 and for 2144. Let me be clear, the discussions of gender in and of themselves are perfectly interesting, but the conversation the characters have in the book feel not even contemporary for 2017-2019 and given the way the book portrays their society, feels very anachronistic for 2144. It feels like something from 1970s sci fi like Joe Haldeman. Hell, it felt like that hamfisted but earnest episode of Star Trek TNG where Ryker wants to hook up with the member of the genderless society. It struck me as an oddly clunky plotline here, in an otherwise well-handled book. It also reminded me of another book that discusses the topic in more interesting and nuanced ways, He She and It by Marge Piercy.