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.