Friday, August 24, 2018

Implanted By Lauren Teffeau

By Lauren Teffeau

Lauren Teffeau was born on the east coast and traveled south where she graduated with a degree in English and a Master's degree in Mass Communications. She worked in academia for several years before heading to the Southwest where she would attend the Talos Toolbox, a masterclass workshop on writing (George RR Martin showed up for this year’s run). She is also an active member of Critical Mass, a New Mexico based invitation-only critique group of science fiction writers. Implanted is her first book released in August of 2018 (so we're reviewing it hot off the presses!), published by Angry Robot books. Angry Robot books is an imprint focused on science fiction and fantasy founded in 2008 by Marc Gascoigne, a former Black Library (which publishes books for Warhammer 40k and other Games Workshop products) publisher who was working with HarperCollins Publishing. Angry Robot Books was bought in 2010 by... Random House (they are everywhere! [Seriously, someone bring back anti-trust enforcement]).

Implanted takes place over a century in the future, humanity is huddled in a collection of domed cities. Why are we hiding under glass you ask? Well it turns out that two centuries of rampant industrialization can catch up to you pretty damn quick and we screwed things up so bad that people can’t go outside without a gas mask. So we spent over a century slowly and carefully cleaning things up with people huddled under glass domes in crowded cities. This story takes place in the city of New Worth built on the bones of Fort Worth after it was destroyed by out of control tornadoes. With limited space and resources the good people of New Worth find themselves in an increasingly stratified society, with people in the elite classes living in the canopy; the upper part of the dome where you get natural sunlight and real plants! The lower classes live in Terrestrial district, at the bottom of the city, where all the light is artificial and there's little beyond people, rats and cockroaches. What keeps this society going is the hope of emergence, the return to the outside. To that end each city has devoted massive time and effort to slowly detoxifying the outside world. Through back-breaking labor, the use of genetic engineered plants to draw toxic elements from the soil and water, and more. In the meantime to keep people from tearing each other apart, new technologies were needed; one of those was the implant. The implant is a computer interface that goes into the base of your skull and lets you plug directly into the internet. Facebook, snapchat, 4chan, all of it, directly in your head. I'll wait for you to stop screaming in horror. As a result augmented reality is present everywhere in the domes and VR is the most popular way of spending time. From massive Arcades where you can play full body simulation video games to real time chat systems. Of course there are a number of issues with this.

One of these issues is that as you get closer to a person, the more they get into your head due to the implant. You see, you can not only pass each other audio and text messages through the implant but also emotions and even memories. This is made more intense through physical contact. Even a handshake can get you “calibrated” with someone, connected at a level that you can feel them in your head. This is horrifying to me, the one place that should always remain private is the inside of your own mind (It is worth noting that this is definitely something people have to actively permit). The idea of never being able to get away from an alien presence in my own head is one that disturbs me greatly. The fact that people in this society consider it not just a normal but a desirable part of their lives seems incredibly alien to me. I'm not the only one, there are people who for mental, emotional, or ideological reasons can't or won't have a implant. There are even people who just can't afford one. They're called Disconnects and they're the lowest of the lowest. They can't work most jobs, they can't qualify for most educational opportunities and live in the worst parts of the dome. They are discontented as the world outside looks greener and greener but they are placed under more and more constraints. Because the long, painful clean up effort has born fruit, the cities are surrounded by slowly but steadily growing green belts and you can finally go outside and breathe without a mask. It's not finished yet however, the outside world is still dangerous and filled with toxic soil, water and other dangers but people are growing increasingly impatient. It's in this simmering social stew of clashing desires and resentments that our story takes place.

Emery Discoll grew up in the Terrestrial District but is on her way up. The sacrifices of her parents to get her the best implant and the best education have paid off. Emery is set to graduate from the best college in the city. She's networked with wealthy men and women and is best friends with the daughter of the man running the most powerful news network. She already has a job as a data analyst set up after graduation. The job is boring but it's well-paying and safe. With this job and her degree Emery can escape up to the Understory and take her parents with her. She's even got a kinda-sorta boyfriend, who she's been trading emotions with over the implant link for a while now. Things are looking up for her, as long as no one finds out about her after-school hobby. See, even in New Worth, or I should say especially in New Worth there is crime. One such crime is hunting the unsuspecting, attacking them, cutting out their implant,, wiping it and selling it on the black market to people who need an implant but can't afford one legally. Emery hunts them in turn, seeking to neutralize them so the police can capture them. This is dangerous however has the cops in New Worth don't like vigilantes and the merest hint of out of bounds behavior can ruin Emery's life forever. This makes sense given just how little space there is for everyone under the dome, New Worth isn't Mega City One, it occupies a small space and has a million people in that space. In such densely packed areas keeping anyone from acting wildly becomes a major priority, you see this in modern cities like Tokyo for example.

Of course, Emery's behavior catches up to her and her secret crusade is used as a means to blackmail her into abandoning her life, faking her death and wiping her implant clean so no one can find her on the internet (Isn’t… the destruction of her life what she seeks to avoid in being blackmailed?{There's a difference between disappearing utterly for 10 years and going to jail for longer and destroying your family and possibly close friends in the process}). She's blackmailed by a shadowy corporation that specializes in transporting data that people want kept secret using foot mobile couriers. They encode the data in the couriers blood, have the courier walk over to the drop point. Blood is drawn the data decoded and the freshly scrubbed blood is put right back into the courier. There's a time limit, after 3 days the alteration to the couriers blood starts making them sick and will eventually kill them, the couriers call it the curdle. This process only works on people with a rare trait in their DNA that allow their blood to carry the data. Emery, unlucky girl, is one of those people. I'm going to be honest, I have no idea how any part of that process would even work, but Ms. Teffaeu does a good job of outlining the limitations of the technology and its effects, which is all you need to do to tell an effective story. Plus given that I've literally reviewed stories about water-magic using elves in this review series, I don't think I'm going to be to picky on whether or not the technology is even possible. Ms. Teffaeu also does a good job of exploring Emery's complicated relationship with her employer and her fellow employees. In one sense they're her capturers, they have forced her into this job and cut her off from all contact with the outside world and she hates that. On the other side, they have taught her a wide variety of new skills and given her access to all sorts of new knowledge. On top of this her employers are fairly skilled in the use of carrot and stick. Promising her that if she follows the rules and provides good service that she will be allowed to recontact her friends and family. On top of that they provide a living to her parents disguised as a death benefit. On the flip side if she ever breaks the rules, she'll have her implant removed and be dumped in the Terrestrial District as a blacklisted Disconnect. They're even smart enough to have a handler who is mainly there to train her and look after her, so she has a sympathetic figure to serve as an authority figure. Her handler helps her deal with a couple of problems from before her conscription and giving her, among other things, closure. This is honestly a pretty good way to develop Stockholm Syndrome in an person. They feel they have reasons to be grateful and enjoy the work despite the fact that the only reasons they don't qualify as slave labor is that they’re paid and they are allowed to go free in 10 years. I suppose to be fair I should note that a good many of her coworkers are there voluntarily, having accepted an offer of secretive and dangerous but highly paid work. So Emery being a sort of highly paid hostage of sorts is not the norm for her employers and gives us a sense of just how rare her genotype is that they would resort to those methods.

Of course everything goes sideways when Emery is tapped for a super secret run with government data that goes bad. With unknown people trying to hijack the data (which means hijacking her) and her unable to tell who to trust, Emery has to go to ground. She must figure out who she can trust, what's she carrying and who would want this data so bad that they would kill for it. In the process she finds herself between an increasingly militant Disconnect movement determined to escape the city and an unknown conspiracy determined to control emergence into the new world. Can Emery figure out what she's carrying, why everyone is determined to get it out of her veins with or without her help and can she do so before the curdle kills her? You'll have to read to find out.

Much like The Windup Girl, there's a lot of Cyberpunk in Implanted but I do think it can be fairly called a Solarpunk story. It takes place in a world after climate change and the collapse of fossil fuels and focuses on a society trying to rebuild itself to live in greater harmony with a environment that it is slowly rebuilding after our modern abuses. There's a thread of hope that runs through the story and an idea of community as well as a sense of slowly pulling ourselves back from the brink. The story is told completely from Emery's point of view, thankfully she is an engaging and sympathetic character even as she navigates divided loyalties and tries to sort out her messy conflicting emotions about the situation that's she in. Which is fairly realistic; while I'm unaware of any corporations that make a habit of blackmailing people into doing very sensitive work, Ms. Teffaeu avoids the trap of making them too cruel or brutal to their workers. This is a solid work, especially for a first novel. That said the actual villains of the book get very little development. In fact almost no one gets a lot of development beyond Emery and the main supporting character Rik (which will often happen from an entirely personal perspective). The book was first conceived as young adult fiction and later made into an adult work and that shows a bit with Emery retaining a very young personality. It's not unreasonably young however (but seriously she went through college without a single boyfriend and only one friend she can name off the top of her head without her implant?). More work could have been done with the other couriers for example, as we know very little about them. On top of that Emery's training period seems ridiculously short as I got the impression that it was measured in weeks considering what she's being asked to do, months would seem a better time frame. Lastly, why have them fake their deaths? Why not just keep them undercover? That way they could do courier runs as part of their cover jobs and it would be one extra layer of security. The claim that it would protect their families and friends kinda fall flat because if someone figures out who the couriers are, the family members are still there to threaten, and it being a crowded city state, it's harder to hide that these people keep showing up even with the fact that the majority of the population is buried in the world of their implants and not paying attention, and couriers have means of defeating electronic surveillance. I feel like someone who knows about the existence of the business (of which there are a good number, since people pay them to run data for them!) could devote the resources to crack things open and then what? Even with that, Implanted by Lauren Teffeau rates a solid B and I really hope to see more of her in the future.

Welp that wraps up Solarpunk month... Wonder what I should next?
You did pick up a bunch of books at ComicCon...
Oh... Right. The books I bought at ComicCon... In May. I should read those... Now. So we're doing independent authors September!  Starting with Fourteen by Colette Black!  Keep Reading!

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