Picture a world where diseases like epilepsy, autism and schizophrenia are cured by a small, implantable node. The implant is barely noticeable, save for a mole-like bump on your right temple, but its effects are staggering. Disease: cured. Intelligence: heightened. Humanity: amplified. But how far can technology improve a human being before they become more machine than man? What happens when the rest of the population grows to fear their enhanced capabilities? What happens when these amplified individuals—or “amps”—are persecuted, discriminated against and vehemently hated?
In the near future, Owen Gray is one of 500,000 amps, living and working in the United States. He lives a quiet life as a Pittsburgh schoolteacher until Samantha, one of his amplified students and an outcast among her untreated peers, commits suicide. Before leaping to her death, she tells Gray, “There’s no place for me here,” and we quickly learn that she’s right; the nation is turning against the perceived threat of amps, whose technological advances threaten to “pull apart the fabric of our society.”
By the way, this is all within the first 15 pages. Wilson starts his novel on a tense note and rarely pushes on the brakes. We don’t even receive any solace when Gray goes to his father in order to seek comfort after Samantha’s death. His father explains that Gray’s amp—which the schoolteacher previously thought was used to treat epilepsy—is actually a dormant, military-grade weapon capable of turning him into a superhuman killing machine once it is activated. Surprise, son!
Wilson does a fantastic job of maintaining a sense of credibility throughout the novel’s surreal opening conflicts by quickly laying down the science behind the amps. The opening pages of the novel are a faux user’s guide to the Neural Autofocus MK-4, the brain implant originally designed to help mankind. From there, things seem plausible, even as Gray goes into hiding with a score of other amped individuals in the boonies of Oklahoma. He teams up with Lyle, an extremist, self-proclaimed freedom fighter and fellow military-grade amp, who wants to ignite a civil war between amplified humans and the rest of the world.
This book packs a lot of content into just 288 pages of text, but it manages to beautifully grapple with big-time themes of humanity and morality. Between every chapter break is a fictionalized news article, blog post or court ruling that follows the development of the fear, violence and legalized discrimination against amps. Wilson stays true to form in these bits of mixed media, even dipping into historical cases like Plessy v. Ferguson and the “separate but equal” doctrine. The resulting effect brings us to consider one of the big, overarching conflicts in “Amped,” which focuses on the inevitable advancement of technology. Wilson makes it perfectly clear that the dystopia Gray lives in isn’t just a fictional Pittsburgh; it’s a road we are very much headed towards as technology continues to advance. What happens when we reach the point where mankind is capable of being enhanced? Do we react with fear or do we embrace the evolution with open arms?
This dilemma is carefully explored through Gray, who struggles between using his abilities to protect the Oklahoma amps, or joining Lyle’s civil war movement and potentially taking over the world. Under its guise of science fiction, Gray’s choice is part of the larger, classic battle between good and evil. In the meantime, we meet Jim, a retired veteran who acts as Gray’s mentor; Nick, an eager boy whose amp cured him of fetal alcohol syndrome; and Lucy, Gray’s love interest. Most of the characters Gray interacts with are memorable in their own right and add greater depth to an already deep story—except Lucy, who is just an attractive doormat and lacks any character development. The forced relationship between Gray and Lucy is one of the biggest reasons why this book is only rated 4 stars. Way to go, Lucy.
But even though Lucy’s character wasn’t strong, everything else was. Wilson’s prose is phenomenal—the novel is scattered with lingering phrases like, “It’s a fragile picture of normalcy, wavering in the reflection of a soap bubble.” Bam. That’s quality imagery. And even though the plot takes countless twists and turns between conspiracy theories and legalized chaos, Gray’s coolly ornate narrative makes the story worthwhile.
Regarding amps, Jim says to Gray, “It’s still only a tool. In the end, a man makes his own decisions. You decide, not the machine.” In the end, “Amped” can be boiled down to the power of choice. Just as Gray must decide whether to use his abilities for the betterment of humanity or its destruction, Wilson also asks his readers to consider putting themselves in Gray’s situation. Technological advancement is happening. An amped future may be on our horizon. Once it arrives, what do we do with that power?
Whatever the answer, read “Amped.” It’s worth your time.
Rating: 4 stars