Amped: Daniel Wilson's followup to Robopocalypse is a wild ride through the Singularity's civil war

Daniel Wilson's latest novel is Amped, a post-apocalyptic high-tech apocalypse cast in the same mold as his spectacular debut novel, Robopocalypse. Wilson is a roboticist by trade, and he combines his background in science and engineering with a knack for fast-paced narrative.

Amped begins on the day that the Supreme Court rules that "Amps" -- people who've had neurological amplification -- aren't entitled to the same rights as "normal" people. Amps are a motley bunch. The amping program started out as a form of "government cheese" -- a welfare handout for the poorest Americans, to help their ADD kids focus in school, to uplift the kids with fetal alcohol syndrome, to give new, functional limbs to shell-shocked veterans rotting in VA beds. Over the years, the amping program is extended to blind people, people with epilepsy, and other people whose disabilities can be overcome with the right combination of new neurocircuitry and physical prostheses.

But, of course, an amp doesn't correct a disabled person's disability up to the level of an able-bodied person. An amped eye isn't a mere substitute for a 20-20 eye -- it blows right past the limitations of our meat-eyes, adding computational pattern-recognition, digital storage, focus at great and close distances, and senstitivity into spectra denied to us poor baseline humans. Likewise amplified cognition, limbs, and so on.

America -- uncomfortable with questions of race and class at the best of times -- goes insane. Suddenly, the privileged elites of America are physically weaker, intellectually slower, and generally less fit than the teeming underclasses whose badge of shame is a tell-tale data-access port on one temple. Laws demanding "equality" for unenhanced humans chip away at the social contract, and a demagogue senator sees a political opportunity and seizes it. The book opens with a front row seat for the Amp's Kristallnacht, and we watch as Owen Gray, the son of a surgeon famed for his R&D efforts on the amp program, races from tragedy to terror. Gray is a schoolteacher whose epilepsy has been treated with an amp, and the book opens with him climbing out on the school roof to try to talk down a formerly learning-disabled amped girl whose machine-enhanced intellect has told her that she will soon be torn to pieces by jealous classmates, who are riding high on a new court ruling that excludes her from the public school system.

When she jumps to her death, Owen is blamed for it. He races to his father's lab, only to find the old man sitting amid a wreckage left behind by a FBI smash-and-grab raid. The political tide has turned. His father orders him to seek out an old colleague in Iowa, and Owen takes to the road. Quickly, he is embroiled in a civil war. As one of the book's antiheroes puts it:

"Look at us. Amps. We're morons smarter than Lucifer. Cripples stronger than gravity. A bunch of broke-ass motherfuckers stinking rich with potential. This is our army. Our people. Strong and hurt. We're the wounded supermen of tomorrow, Gray. It's time you got yourself healed. New world ain't gonna build itself. And the old world don't want to go without a fight."

Wilson has done a very good job with Amped. It's a lot more allegorical and a lot less scientific than Robopocalypse -- the action more about the drama than any kind of rigorous extrapolation. But Wilson taps into something primal with Amped, some of the deep questions about medical ethics, the social effects of technology, and the way that class and politics make technological questions much harder to resolve.

The folks at Doubleday were good enough to provide the first two chapters for your perusal: Chapter 1, Chapter 2.



    1.  I quite enjoyed ‘Robopocalypse.’ But there’s always ‘Twilight’ and the latest Dean Koonz book, if those are more your cup of tea.

      1. I enjoyed Robopocalypse too, but it wasn’t well written – the whole thing felt like the first draft of an excellent book crying out for a tidy up.

      2.  Cute, but Koontz is actually a good writer trapped in a bad idea person’s body. Meyer, well…that’s just a low blow.

  1. Sounds extremely interesting. 

    It’s amazing to read people arguing that intelligence enhancement is impossible, now that we’ve lived in that world for years. Though there’s more than a century’s rich history of fiction struggling with issues of transhumanism, there’s plenty more room for it now that we’re in the curl of that wave.

    1. Yeah – I can’t think of a single elite that would not get upgraded if the technology existed (note, religious fundamentalists are not elites)

        1. Oh, they are in my country (the U.S.). I meant in any kind of rational use of the word “elite”.

    2.  They don’t want hoi polloi to have them, because without that distinction how would they know they were elite?

      1. Exactly.  You’ll have medical augmentation, which will be outrageously expensive, as are all things medical, and then you’ll have the really good, top-of-the-line augmentation which will be priced only for the inbred super-elite.

        1. Remember, though, how that works in this country. It’s not enough to have more. To really feel confident that you’ve made it to the inner circle, you need to make sure everyone else has less.

  2. Look at us. Amps. We’re morons smarter than Lucifer. Cripples stronger than gravity. A bunch of broke-ass motherfuckers stinking rich with potential. This is our army. Our people. Strong and hurt. We’re the wounded supermen of tomorrow, Gray. It’s time you got yourself healed. New world ain’t gonna build itself. And the old world don’t want to go without a fight.

    From your lips to Denis Leary in Demolition Man‘s ears.

  3. I just want a t-shirt with the book-cover graphic. Same colors, too. Who prints the Boing Boing shirts?

  4. Seems to me the elites would be the ones benefiting the most from future bio-medical enhancements. That stuff costs money, they would not waste it on the poor. I think he has it backwards.

    1. I don’t know, people can be funny. The weirdest things can be turned into status symbols under the right circumstances. And many people might be a little hesitant to chop off limbs or remove eyes to replace them even with super-powered prosthetics.

      Besides, I don’t think that’s really the point. I can’t tell for sure without reading the book, but from the description above, I see it as more being an exploration of the ugly mental gymnastics of privilege that mostly go unseen, but that get nasty fast when challenged… that happens frequently in the real world, but it still stays relatively invisible. By going the speculative fiction route, you can take it to the extremes and make it obvious.

      1. “The weirdest things can be turned into status symbols under the right circumstances.” 

        There is that – look at “high-status” cellphones…they are all pretty much 2002 technology.

    2.  Personally, I think that as sensory augmentation/addition and strength enhancement prostheses become practically available (read works >=66% of the time) it will become a basic requirement for special forces and other military positions.

      Wanna become an army ranger?  Then you are required to forfeit your biological eyes and get IR to UV spectrum implants, and a piece of brain software that makes you comply with orders.

  5. I just started reading it (little aside: It’s great to see a book review on Boing Boing for a book that’s actually out) and so far it’s good. Wrenching right off the bat. I had to stop reading it because the behaviour of anti-amp people was so disgusting and disturbing. Almost a shame this wasn’t released a month later. Now I’m gonna end up finishing it way before my beach vacation, and it seems like a perfect beach read.

  6. Which side am I on?

    As someone who has difficulty functioning without outside aid in modern society? 

    Amp me.

  7. Read the article, not the book.  I know I may sound too much pop commercial, but, since I saw the first Transformers movie, I wanted a prequel, on how a world with self-aware machines would end acting as humans, and I had a similar idea like the “Amps”, specially computers connected to human brain.  With disabled or injured people connected to cyborg implants, & cyborg computers, and , eventually migrating from extensiosn to human body to full, independent, self-aware machines.

  8. Read the book yesterday.  It was a lot like how people are describing robopocalypse (a book I have not read).  It seemed like a great idea for a book crying out for a bit better execution.  I also agree with one review I read that the main character is basically a marty stu self insert.  The love story aspect also didn’t work very well.  The plot was pretty interesting though, and the combat scenes were very gripping.

    1. Also, should add that this book is basically a super-hero novel, and really doesn’t address any off the sorts of transhumanist issues that are begging to be addressed on this subject matter.

      1.  Yep, read it today…very poorly written, and a pretty dumb handling of a potentially interesting topic.  Shallow characterization, little explanation, the technology might as well have been magic or comic-book superpowers.

  9.  For implanted-tech fun, I’d suggest…anything cyberpunk; Gibson’s stuff 3 decades ago is more inventive than this.  For tech-as-social-division exploration, tons to pick from; Nancy Kress’s “Beggars in Spain” springs to mind.  As does most of Cory’s work.

    1. “Beggars in Spain” was the first thing I thought of when I read the synopsis.

      That and the plot of the first x-men movie…

      But I’ll read it now just to be fair.

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