Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Happy Chip, by Dennis Meredith - 4 Stars

Dennis Meredith really gets terrestrial sci-fi because, unlike so many others, he knows that the key is to look at what cutting edge technology can do now and then add a strong idea that’s going to skip it an extra stage into the future. In his other book Wormholes, he invented a new use for them which I think no one had thought of before. In this novel, he’s back in the groove with a credible advance in a practical world. That step ahead is like a stone flying into the pond that pushes out a complicated pattern of ripples, side effects and consequences that make up the novel. People react, business reacts, governments react and the hero can emerge. SCIENCE fiction, you see? It begins with a leap in science. Not fantasy. He gets it.
 
This novel explores the consequences of something small, just a flimsy, harmless little microchip. Not just an ordinary chip but one that parks in the bloodstream and monitors bodily chemistry, communicates with its parent company, exchanges information and can (in the latest version) whack you full of hormones. Ibiza beware. The sales pitch is quite attractive; “we’ll tell you if you like something or not and then quantify it”. Just imagine the scene: “I love you Benjy”, “Oh Daphne, how much though? How much do you love me?”, “14.26, it says here. I put out for anyone over 13.7”. Taste and emotions now have scores, so I guess that’s the death knell for critics and bad products. When corruption sets in and corporate malfeasance bites, the fun begins. Let’s go!
 
Would you let someone tamper with your body? (apart from whatever version of Benjy you keep at home). Well, it’s already started. Years ago a professor at Reading implanted a chip into his body so he could walk around his building and see all the doors open ahead of him without having to take his hands out of his pockets. Even in my own university, there’s a department of Hybrid Biodevices (Biology, Life Sciences, Optoelectronics). Most of that research is of real benefit to the human race, such as heart pumps, internal organ monitors and other internally implanted machines that help to keep people alive, broadcast alarm signals or dispense regular doses of medication. The other side of this research is super cool, but we should be nervous enough to hover our fingers over the stop button: Flies with backpacks! Titchy cameras, comms devices. Companies and governments will queue up to fund that kind of R&D because the shareholders and public all like it. Think about this though. What else would you want to deliver that’s as small as a drop of water, very high impact and would fit in that insect’s backpack do you think? Something radioactive? How about a neurotoxin? Forgive my paranoid speculation – I’m sure I’m the only one who’s ever, ever thought of that.
 
The point is that technology can be used for good or bad depending which set of hands it falls into. Nefarious uses pay more though and it you had to find a way around ethical boards to make the breakthrough, it’s easy to believe that some folk might go the whole hog, piglets, trough of swill and subscription to Farmers Monthly by chasing the gleam of gold. They have to really or it would be a damp squib of a novel. Therefore, to make a good narrative, you need a credibly evil, murderous and scheming baddie – and this story has one who probably took Tony Blair’s correspondence course.
 
The story is entertaining, of full value length and I found it credible in all but two places. The first is when a former electro-mechanical scientist is suffering at the hands of her implant but doesn’t know that it can be made inert by magnetism. She didn’t know that? I knew that in prep school. So there I was, reading this book and any lip reader could tell you silently mouthing “MRI, EMP, Physics dept. lab, rail gun, wind farm generator, electricity sub-station, tape on some rare Earth magnets even”. Then I thought this was probably the writer being clever and the character might have dropped the MRI solution because it wouldn’t just turn the chip off but it would also super-heat it and potentially pull it through the artery wall, through the soft tissue and out of the body. Gush, splurt, no thanks, yuck. An electromagnetic pulse would be best but hard to arrange, so a brief buzz in the MRI would surely be enough. She studied electronics, right? The second thing I wasn’t sure about was the role the Chinese played in the story and how they failed to retain a single chip to study. I suggest they might, on their own home ground, be better at managing situations that this. Having said all that, I have to grow up and accept that this it is a fictional entertainment story and it would not have worked as well if those two things were to have the boring brown wand of reality waved over them. There are all sorts of reasons why Jurassic Park couldn’t have dinosaurs, for example, but the book would be utterly pointless without them. Ignore this entire paragraph then as I withdraw the observations in deference to poetic license. If they’d told Aristophanes that a chorus of frogs sounds silly, there’d be no such thing now as satire.
 
The Happy Chip is a dependable sci-fi thriller that fulfils expectations, all the more worrying because it could happen soon and almost certainly will happen in this century. Think twice about the fashions you’re caught up in, please. Changing your mind about a tattoo could make you anxious, trusting a driverless bus is something you will eventually get used to and the fear of being filmed in the shower by a robot fly is pathetic but getting a chip put inside you that can control your body, sluice or withhold hormones and a complete stranger is holding the remote control… that’s where the fun isn’t funny anymore. Another story well told from the imagination of Dennis Meredith.

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