Monday, 29 September 2014

Book Review: The Boost by Stephen Baker

Pros: thought provoking premise, interesting characters, quick paced

Cons: some world-building and logistical issues

Ten days before the national update for the boost, networked supercomputers implanted in people’s brains, Ralf Alvare, a software engineer, finds himself on the run after learning about an open surveillance gate in the program that would allow companies direct access to people’s thoughts and memories.  His own boost chip has been ripped out and, newly ‘wild’, he’s heading to see his brother in El Paso, across the border from the infamous drug lord run city of Juarez, where no one has boosts.  But John Vallinger, a lobbyist whose spent years working towards this chip update, sends one of his men after Ralf, intent on stopping whatever resistance the programmer can create.

I thought the story was very interesting, with a lot of good questions being asked about privacy vs access to information.  Would you put a chip in your head that allowed you to be smarter and access information anywhere, effortlessly, if it meant that someone could track your every move, see what you’re buying, etc.?  Would having a brain implant that can affect your thoughts make things better or worse?  In the book there’s an app that you can apply to make the tasteless protein they eat taste like anything you program in.  There were some great scenes where Ellen, for the first time without the use of her boost, gets to taste actual food and experience other sensations without recourse to a fantasy cover for it.  Her observations that some things are better natural while others are better in her imagination, were very interesting.

Ralf’s family’s drama was also pretty fun to read, with the stories getting deeper as more information is revealed.  I also liked that his family provided a grounding in how different people reacted to the Boost.  His dad rejected and fought against it, his mother helped bring it to the US but then regretted the role she played in making it a ubiquitous thing, his older brother constantly struggled to use it and he spent most of his time in it and is lost without it.

I wasn’t a big fan of Suzy.  Though she was a member of the Democratic Movement, she seemed unaware of security issues despite the domestic terrorism she could be accused of and made some odd decisions towards the end of the book, which I’ll mention in more detail in the spoiler section.

There’s a scene towards the end of the book that may cause trigger issues for some readers.  Though mostly off page, the scene is violent but necessary for the plot and the person attacked is shown as capable of defending themself earlier on.  There’s a bit of follow-up in the epilogue that briefly mentions some of the ethical issues surrounding what happened, which I thought was well done. 

As for the world-building, I did question, while I was reading the book, the idea that once a chip is damaged or removed that’s it, there’s no fixing or replacing it.  Considering the importance of the chips (you can’t pay for things or direct cars without one), and how easily brain injuries can occur that might damage chips, it seems like there should be some alternate options available.

After I finished the book a few other questions came to me about how the world worked.  For example, while it’s clear that Juarez isn’t easy to get to or leave, it’s unclear if the Amish wild area is equally blocked off, and if not, how the people there trade with their non-wild neighbours.  And does Juarez manufacture all of its needs or does it get a lot of goods through the black market?  And if it depends on contraband, how do its citizens pay for it when they don’t have chips and their money is worthless outside their city?  I was also surprised by how far money went in Juarez.  I would have thought fresh, tasteful food would be harder to grow/raise than the manufactured tasteless food the non-wilds ate.  It should therefore be more expensive as the market for things like spices would be non-existent outside of the wilds and are time consuming to make. 

The book is told in third person present tense (eg: Ellen blinks her eyes open.), rather than the more common past tense.  I personally found the jump between events narrated in past tense and the present tense of the main text jarring.  Most readers probably won’t have a problem with it.

This is a quick, entertaining read, and despite the complaints I had with aspects of it, the questions it raises - about letting a government and corporations have control over what information you can access - are relevant ones for our current world.

*** SPOILERS ***

I’m going to explicitly spoil the ending so consider yourself warned.

Suzy as a character baffled me.  She stupidly goes jogging even though she’s in hiding and knows her boost can be tracked.  When she’s brought to the interrogation centre she has to give her kidnappers directions so she’s not left driving around indefinitely even though she’s safer outside a guarded and locked facility than she is inside it.  She doesn’t seem to care that she’s been captured and goes so far as to sleep with her interrogator (who, granted, is treating her well).  I can understand her not pressing charges at the end of the book, though I was surprised that she never called the police or others (like a DM contact), who could help her, on her boost, when Dahl started torturing her.  I’d assumed her boost was blocked inside the building, but she was able to message Ralf, so obviously that wasn’t the case.

I didn’t quite believe that Vallinger’s secret service contact didn’t know what kind of car he drove or - failing that - that there wasn’t some sort of ownership marker they could access stating who owned the car.  I was also surprised they didn’t mention there were 2 people in the car and check who the second one was before they bombed it.

I was surprised that the group celebrated directly after Vallinger’s death, despite the fact that the update wouldn’t need his OK, as it’s something automatically scheduled.  Then again, the change of leadership would likely accompany a halt of the update (which is what happened).  Still, they could have waited until the follow-up reports that state what happened next and that the update had been postponed before their party.  

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