by K.B. Spangler
I'm not sure that Digital Divide counts as high concept, but damn if the premise doesn't pack a punch. Published in 2012 by K.B. Spangler, a young lady who lives in North Carolina with her husband and dogs, Digital Divide is her first novel but is not her first work. That work happens to be a girl and her fed, a web comic (that she was the artist and the writer for) that actually provides the setting for Digital Divide (it's also the work she's most known for). That said you don't have to read the web comic to follow or understand the story of Digital Divide. It is completely self contained and provides a full story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's just that the story is one of many set in a greater story. That said the novel speaks for itself and explains itself rather well and I could hand it to someone who had no idea what a web comic even was and they would still grasp everything going on pretty well.
The term digital divide has an actual meaning, at first it meant the gap between those who have access to a computer and those who don't; as society has changed the term has also changed to mean the gap between those who have internet access and those who don't. As we become more and more digital (last time I went looking for a job 2 years ago, most of the places I checked didn't even have paper applications) the more things become stacked against people who either can't access the internet or develop the skills to use it. Think how much of your information comes from the internet? How many products have you bought using it? How much of your contact with people flows from it? Imagine you didn't have that, how much would your life change? In this story the divide is turned up to 11. See, in the time the story is set, five years ago fresh from the shock of 9/11 the government was handed a technology that would ensure that it never happened again. It meant there would be a way to seamlessly integrate different government agencies and ensure they shared information quickly, efficiently, and consistently. The technology donated by a private company was that of a cybernetic implant that went into the brain and allowed the user to directly interface with the internet and with machines and computers that were online.
The government authorized a pilot program of 500 government agents from across the federal government. Military, law enforcement, regulatory; basically any government agency could send a candidate and if they passed the testing phase, they would receive an implant. Everyone sent their brightest and their best, which made the results even more heartbreaking. The implants worked alright but... the interface responded erratically to the agents, prone to react to their emotional state, instead of direct commands. It even showed up in their dreams when they were asleep. It began to drive them mad. A stopgap measure of drugging the agents into an emotionally neutral state was adopted along with heavy use of sleep aides to ensure they actually slept. However this rendered the agents useless for field operations and frankly an embarrassment. They were quietly shuffled off into the gray hell of ignored failures left to moulder and die while being kept as comfortable as they could with busy work. This busy work resulted in a not entirely chance meeting between an agent of the program and a certain young lady. They were able, with the help of friends (you're going to need to read the web comic for information on those friends!), to turn off the interface and pull the agent back to the realm of humanity. But what to do now that everyone was awake and firing on all cylinders?
In response to this the agent in question, Patrick Mulcahy, the guy who freed everyone and as a result was made the leader of this band of cyborgs, made a decision. He went public and broke the story to the world. By the time he did so there were around 350 surviving agents left. This book however is not about him. It's about one of the agents who was pulled back to humanity by the efforts of Mulcahy and his friends and how she tries to at least be of some service to a government that frankly doesn't deserve it. I suppose I could say that is the curse of humanity to be governed by governments that always act in a rather ungoverned manner. It is our blessing that those governments are served and often held in check by young men and women whose skill, talent, and loyalty are entirely more then those governments deserve. This book is about one of those people: Rachel Peng.
Rachel Peng is something of a unicorn. I don't mean she has fur and a horn, but instead to refer to her so-rare-as-to-be-mythical status. I'm not referring to the fact that she's an American girl born to a Chinese mother, or that she's gay (although those facts don't hurt the unicorn status), or that she's an active duty officer despite her organic eyes being rather useless. I mean the fact that she's an Army MP who managed to not only become a warrant officer (a nearly extinct breed), but that she's a warrant officer who was tapped for officerdom but was detached out to civilian duty! The fact that she's a cyborg is really just an ‘of course she is’ fact at this point. I mock but I actually like the character, it would have been really easy to let a number of labels overwhelm the character but they don't. Agent Peng clearly has a Chinese background but isn't “the Chinese character.” she's attracted to women but isn't “the Gay character.” These parts of her aren't hidden or shoved to the background but they're not allowed to overwhelm the individual that is Rachel Peng, which is how you want it to be. Our little unicorn is still on detached duty actually, as she has been sent out to the Washington D.C. Metro police in order to build ties and render her unique skills and talents via implant, and otherwise to aide in serving and protecting the District of Columbia. Unfortunately she is somewhat less than popular, by which I mean openly hated and reviled for her cyborgy nature. But when a young woman is murdered in front of an ATM camera and there's no video of the murderer, loved or feared, Agent Peng is needed. The murder leads her to other crimes, each related by the fact that one had digitally altered the evidence to either remove any visuals of the attacker or edited it to make it look like someone else was attacking. Things that would be really easy for a Cyborg to do.
So now Agent Peng with a handful of allies (including two other agents! One of whom is an asshole!) must lead an investigation against an opponent who has been carefully planning ahead, with no idea as to his identity, goals, or his limits; and they need to find him before he kills again. They also need to find him without breaking the rules however, as going to far in a rush to find him will alienate not just the law enforcement community but runs the risk of branding them as monsters who will respect no law or boundary. Given that they are in the middle of Senate hearings to figure out just what do with these people, a single wrong step could prove disastrous for Agent Peng and her fellows. Ms. Spangler uses this conflict to not only give us a well done police procedural but to address ideas of security vs freedom and how far can the right of privacy extend in a world where someone with access to google search and some skill with computers can unearth things about you that you would really prefer to keep private. Additionally it's not enough to catch our villain, Agent Peng as to figure out the motive behind his actions. Why try to frame the Cyborgs? Why intentionally poke 350 of the most powerful people on earth? Is there someone else behind it? If so, what are their goals?
She has to figure this out while dealing with a politically ambitious judge who wants to make his election chances soar over the cyborgs broken bodies; police detectives who view her as a freak and possible monster; and the ever present power of bureaucracy slowing her down or threatening to get everything tossed out if she doesn't dot every I and cross every t. It's an interesting look at some of the obstacles that the police encounter, complicated by the fact that we really don't have rules for some of the stuff now coming out. If I equip a drone with an IR camera capable of pinning down a person at 500 meters through walls... Do I need a warrant to use it to film a suspect's home? Does a search warrant for everything in plain sight cover looking through a browser history? What if I have an app on my super-phone that automatically connects with your computer and pulls up your browser history(pretty sure that's not possible... yet)? Is that covered by the warrant? As technology continues surging forward, these are issues we got to consider and Ms. Spangler does a good job of this while using the cyborg characters as almost a metaphor for these challenges and in doing so avoids demonizing people. We're shown that the cyborgs despite the fact that they can basically run amok if they choose are not bad people and work to rein themselves in for the betterment of those around them. The folks who worry about the issues the Cyborgs present are in turn shown not to be awful people but having a real basis for their concerns. I really actually appreciated Agent Peng's struggle to find the murderer before he killed again and not shatter the rules that govern our legal system in the process. This isn't to say that she doesn't bend a rule or two, but all in all she ensures that people's rights are respected. Even when she doesn't want to, which I really respect. Of course I tend to agree with Benjamin Franklin “That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer.”
If you enjoy a good mystery, then you will find one here. If you're interested in reading a police investigation with a science fiction spin? This is your book. K.B. Spangler uses technology and interesting characters to weave us a tale of murder, politics, intrigue, and drama. The violence is low in this book; there are shocking confrontations to be had but most of it is driven by investigation and character interaction. So if you're looking for an action soaked, pulse pounding read, you're likely to be disappointed. What violence there is in the book is fairly standard really, but then I may be spoiled by a steady diet of Matthew Stover books. All of that said, I enjoyed the book and I kinda went out and ordered the sequel. So you can expect to see more of Ms. Spangler’s work on this review series. As you might have guessed Digital Divide by K.G. Spangel is a B+, the lady's opening novel is better then the work of some veteran writers I've reviewed here and I hope to see only improvement.
Next week? We're going back to the Old Kingdom, with Goldenhand
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen