Volume 16, Number 2, Spring, 1998


By Bart Kosko

Avon Books, 1997
ISBN:0-380-97466-5, 311 pgs. $24.00
Reviewed by Lynn Maners

Set in an overpopulated world in which the oil is running out and the President of the U.S. has just declared gasoline illegal, our hero, John Grant, holds a patent for a cheap process of hydrogen extraction. Grant is aided by his intelligent agent, the computerized avatar of the English philosopher John Stuart Mill in his fight against a genius Sufi terrorist whose main terror tactic is replacing the brains of victims with nanochips of his own mind and own intentions and then having these chipped individuals accomplish acts of economic terrorism.

Not only is his girlfriend’s brain replaced with a nanochip, but Grant himself is eventually captured and, in some gruesomely written scenes, has his brain and right eye replaced with a nanochip. He is able, however, to overcome the chips control via his intelligent agent (housed in a “raisin”), though he ends up destroying Hoover Dam in thwarting an attempt to shut down his chipped brain. Having at least achieved a measure of revenge, we then “see” Grant as existing only in nanospace, preparing to hike off into cyberspace.

As a member of the Prometheus Award judging panel, I had recent cause to consider this book’s nomination. If one had to place it in a genre, its category would most probably be that of near future Clancyesque political economic cyber-techno thriller.

Although quite an enjoyable read, this novel displays a characteristic which is in great danger of becoming hackneyed, that of the plot resolution happening as a result of the protagonist downloading his or her consciousness into cyberspace. What started out to great fanfare as new and fresh with Gibson, Sterling, et.al. has become almost iconic in certain types of sf novels, as indeed it did in a number of this year’s Prometheus nominees.

Clearly an accomplished writer, Kosko makes good use of narrative breaks via WNN reports (think ISN on Babylon 5) to advance the broader plot and to contextualize the action. One technical quibble to conclude: an F-22 wouldn’t be a stealth bomber, by definition it’d be a fighter, hence the F, or at least F/A where A indicates attack.

Actual libertarian ideas are minimal; there’s a Libertarian US Senator mentioned (as well as a Green) and the 51st state of Southern California is depicted as a police state in which surveillance is ubiquitous. I wouldn’t be telling tales out of school to mention that libertarian readers seem to find reading about these kinds of dystopias attractive. Perhaps it’s a contrast thing with our imagined libertarian utopias.

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