In reality, I was moderately interested in Daniel H. Wilson’s follow up to his New York Times bestelling debut Robopocalypse. His first novel was an entertaining page turner that garnered far better press than it rightly deserved, but it demonstrated that Wilson was a capable story teller who would improve in future novels.
With that frame of mind I went into Amped hopeful that it would meet expectation. It did not. I finished it more convinced that Robopocalypse’s success had more to do with the formula (borrowed from World War Z) and marketing push than any inherent quality of the novel itself. It left me wondering whether the definition of a summer read has become wholly reflective of the summer blockbuster film — form over substance, effects over plot.
Wilson’s strength is in the merging of science and reality to create a believable future. He did this in Robopacalypse and does so again in Amped. Instead of predicting widespread reliance on robotics, Amped focuses on the augmentation of the human body through technology. Specifically, the enhancement of the brain by linking it to minature on board computers.
In Wilson’s imagination, these implants can be used to cure all sorts of mental deficiencies from epilepsy to ADHD or even link the brain to prosthetic limbs. The unintended consequence is that this modification also leaves the enhanced individual far beyond a regular human. Applying a tiny bit of imagination, the military application of such technology becomes obvious. Throw in a dash of the religious right, some bigotry, a belief that might makes right, and there you have the entirety of what Amped has to offer. It’s a strong idea, but if the execution sounds an awful lot like Magneto versus Professor X, it’s because it is.
Before I get too far into what’s wrong with the novel, let me first say there are several things Amped does right. As I mention above, Wilson does a great job coming up with a technological MacGuffin, implanting it into his reality, and crafting a story around it. I want to know more about the implants and how they work from the first page to the last. He also writes with great clarity, and a sense of purpose with where he’s headed in the narrative. Unfortunately, that’s the extent to which I can offer praise.
Told in first person from the perspective of Owen Gray, a school teacher implanted as a child to overcome epilepsy, the novel progresses at an erratic pace. Painfully slow at times and then quickly racing, Wilson does a poor job of building tension. Using the present tense, he attempts to give the reader the sensation of riding along in Owen’s head as opposed to listening to him tell his story. I agree with the choice, but not the result.
Far too often exposition comes through Owen’s thoughts, breaking the narration and my investment in what’s happening “on screen”. Emphasizing the point, every chapter ends with a news clip that expands the scope of world events. Instead of relying on these enders to fill in the scientific holes, he uses these cutaways to offer more narrative. Had these been reversed I can’t help but wonder if Owen would have been freed to interact in a more natural way.
It’s difficult to go deeper into the reasons why Amped fails without giving away too much. Suffice to say the main character demonstrates very little agency, making him terribly uninteresting to me as a reader. Likewise, the characters that surround him are cardboard cutouts that never demonstrate any depth beyond the pale drawings Wilson offers when they’re first introduced. This lack of character and poor narrative voice, make Amped one of the most uninspired pieces of fiction I’ve read since this blog began. It isn’t catastrophically flawed, as most novels I negatively review are, it’s just boring.
As a result, even to a reader merely looking for a light popcorn style novel, I can’t recommend Amped. In fact, I strongly suggest you give it a pass.