The R.E.M. Effect by J.M. Lanham - 4 Stars
We’re all slaves to our emotions. Now consider what that actually means. Our conscious decisions are like headlines, short and prominent, but much more goes on in the subconscious, like the full article in all its detail, than we could ever hope to keep track of. Breathing, the regulation of body temperature, digestion, when to sleep and all the rest happen because of instructions we don’t even register in the conscious. That’s the mind but how about the body? The DNA we have in every cell instructs the construction of the body on a cellular and sub-cellular level. Sometimes replication errors creep into the blueprint and then the design becomes vulnerable and fails or at least turns less efficient. From myopia and arthritis to cancer, mutation and ‘bad genes’ are the engine room of evolutionary development because sometimes they confer an unexpected advantage but they’re also an Achilles heel that fails our systems. Naturally, we can’t intervene in these hidden processes of the mind and body to tailor the system to suit us, can we? Let’s try that question again. Could we?
Picture this: Set a story in a world in which a pharmaceutical drug is in development that can inhibit genetic instructions that inform systems which regulate the body, including the brain. This is also a world in which devotees of an ancient form of mystical philosophy can give their subconscious mind body-regulating orders. Got the picture? Merge the systems and amplify. Now lets’ take both abilities to the mass market and monetize the discovery. Yea! We take control of our inner systems and set up the conscious as an aegis to fumble around in the full potential of our minds and bodies like an untrained surgeon, the very thing that natural biology didn’t trust us with! We’re all gods now. Excuse me? Does anyone remember what hubris means? Dr F?
Now let’s re-visit a deeply carved sci-fi concept. Arthur C. Clarke pointed out that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. If we re-consider the claims of our planet’s traditional and weathered spiritual disciplines like Buddhism, Yoga, all the sutras, asanas, high llamas, blokes who sit up poles etc., then drill down to their less exercise-based extremes, usually hearsay, like yogic flying, transcending death, remote viewing or out of body projection (vomiting?) or balancing the budget, these can all be interpreted as claims of ‘magic’. If manipulation of the brain, either with a chemical compound or through a mind control technique were to allow any of this to actually happen, it would be rigorously tested and then accepted scientifically, i.e. this ancient mystical stuff is arguably a kind of science fiction because it’s one step beyond what we know is possible and the fiction tag would have to drop if the effect that’s claimed could be replicated. (Question: What do you call alternative medicine that has been proven to work? Answer: Medicine). One day, is it inconceivable that Astra Zenica or Glaxosmithkleinbeechamsmithandnephew or whatever they’ve joined up to become by then might make a subconscious mind and body control-style breakthrough? Prepare for the distinguished Hindu gentleman at the AGM sticking up his hand and saying “We told you so”. Until that happens, we can explore the fiction.
This book is a flowing, well written and efficiently copy-edited (everyone forgets the editor) adventure thriller that explores the values of big pharma on one hand and on the other the kind of showman who has his own TV channel and can sell the public any commodity, including shallow corruptions of things intended to be more spiritually meaningful. It’s also a story of resistance and escape, since each advance grinds new victims beneath it, as the situation gradually plays into what it feels like when your dreams turn rancid and the hounds are out. There’s a paragraph I like which describes driving up to a traditional Tibetan temple, so you think the car is out of place but that neatly misdirects the reader from the real outlier as the building turns out to be in Atlanta. I like the baddies, the goodies, the people up trees and decaying aeroplanes. Arthur C. Clarke also noted that the limits of the possible can be found by venturing a little way past them into the impossible, which is what this book does, using the small-step terrestrial sci-fi approach, where the changes don’t confer ridiculous magical super-powers (laser beams from your eyes igniting snowballs, catching bullets and flying at the speed of sound without your cheeks flapping open) but veer just far enough into the incredible to make the fantasy come alive and prompt the all-important questions about how far we should go – whether our profit incentivised exploration would have the wisdom and maturity to stop and take a loss if a tool a little too powerful was ever discovered. “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known” (Carl Sagan, optimist). I am in a quotey mood, aren’t I?
Would you decline a new ability or cure for your ailments? Would you pass up the chance to use new found powers or knowledge? Could you or your business afford to choose not to profit from your research and investment? For all those who take the self-righteous approach, how would your answer if you or your loved ones were desperate? Even if you still abstained, would you trust everyone else not to use it? “It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them.” (Julius Oppenheimer). Boom.
The reason why I think you would enjoy reading this book is because it’s a good, engaging story which the author steers with competent control. It’s as simple as that. The scenes aren’t too short, they’re not too long and there’s a second tier character called Donny who stands out from the cast like the lawyer’s character does from Breaking Bad. Donny, Donny, “If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools” (Kipling had the little shit lined up right there).
This corporate medical industry subject matter tends toward something the author clearly knows about but the easy-going and confident writing style tells me that he could change subjects and pull the reader in just as effectively doing something else. I looked J.M. Latham up because I didn’t think this could really be the first book he’s attempted, but apparently so. This yarn is next-step, terrestrial scientific fiction so the reader isn’t expected to come out convinced it will work and expecting the whole shebang to be announced next Tuesday but I like the story in a mainstream-missed-out kind of way and I think you will too.