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Amped by Daniel H. Wilson

Published by Doubleday on June 5, 2012 

Amped is a variation on a science fiction theme with a rich tradition:  an exploration of the rights to which artificially intelligent beings are entitled.  Although the theme has most often involved machines that take on the characteristics of humans, Daniel Wilson applies it to humans who have been physically and cognitively enhanced by technology.  The result isn’t particularly profound or original, but taken as a thriller with science fiction trappings, Amped is enjoyable escapist fiction.

Amped begins with a familiar premise:  a device implanted in the brain amplifies intelligence by focusing concentration.  Not surprisingly, there is a public outcry against those who, having obtained the device, are perceived as having an unfair advantage.  Since those with amplified concentration will inevitably be the smartest students, they are banned from many public schools, an outcome advocated by the Pure Human Citizen’s Council but condemned by the Free Body Liberty Group (who put an interesting spin on “pro-choice”).  The PHCC, led by Senator Joseph Vaughn, has convinced a growing segment of the population that enhanced intelligence is both unpatriotic and a threat to the American way of life.

As a technological enhancement that (supposedly) makes life better, the amp is arguably not so different from the neural implant that controls Owen Gray’s epileptic seizures.  Because the maintenance hub in his temple is indistinguishable from an amp’s hub, however, Owen experiences hostility from “normal” people who believe he has an amp.  Owen’s empathy for amps is therefore understandable, but his understanding of his own existence is radically altered when his father reveals a secret about Owen’s past.  The disclosure sends Owen on a trip to an Oklahoma trailer park called Eden.  Meanwhile, a disbanded group of amped soldiers called the Echo Squad is blamed for terrorizing the country.  One of them, a cowboy named Lyle Crosby, becomes central to the story.

Unfortunately, the story’s background is better than the story itself.  A third of the way in, Amped becomes a tale of resistance:  the amped, led by the Echo Squad, against the regular (“reggie”) folk who oppress them.  Amped later turns into a political conspiracy action-adventure story flavored with Superman and a bit of romance.  At times it reads like military science fiction without the military trappings; at other times it resembles a condensed version of a Ludlum novel.

One of Amped’s most interesting themes is the nature of heroism.  The difference between freedom fighter and terrorist, as we have often heard and as the story demonstrates, is simply a matter of perspective.  Another theme is the consequence of oppression.  Those who fight back reinforce the fears of the oppressors while persuading the ambivalent that they have something to fear from a suddenly violent minority.  Those who don’t fight back are consigning themselves to a life of oppression.

Amped’s primary theme is, of course, fear and hatred of people who are different from the norm.  An important but underdeveloped character (an advocate for peaceful resistance) perceptively argues that most people are good, but not when they’re afraid.  Fear is easy to instill and a powerful tool for manipulation of opinion, a point that Wilson makes in a heavy-handed way.

Unfortunately, Amped buries these serious themes in an action-adventure story that fails to do them justice.  The story takes a (not entirely unexpected) twist at the end, the sort of ploy that thrillers rely upon to startle readers.  As an action-adventure-thriller-science fiction story, Amped isn’t bad, but a disappointing ending cheapens a strong setup.  It is only partially redeemed by an epilog that, despite being a little too warm and fuzzy, delivers an important message.

Despite my criticisms, Amped make a number of points rather effectively:  the media’s willingness to slant stories in a way that both reflects and shapes popular opinion as dictated by the prevailing power structure; the ability of oppressors to spin the truth by portraying themselves as the oppressed; the godlike sense that often develops in people who have profoundly superior abilities.  The parallel between those who call for human purity (i.e., unenhanced brain functions) and those who, in the past, have supported racial purity or religious purity or political purity is obvious but nonetheless insightful.

Wilson writes with unwavering intensity and fierce energy.  While the story is ordinary, Amped is worth reading for the well-conceived background and for the thoughtful messages it delivers.


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