A jaded high schooler of the mid-21st century commits risky suburban burglaries to pay for the physical and mental modifications needed to stay current in a technology-blighted society.
Graves (Lakes of Mars, 2019) creates a memorably compromised first-person narrator/antihero in Dorian Waters, an alienated teenager in America circa 2030 (Oakland A’s references suggest a California locale), where advanced technology comes with a high price monetarily—and in other ways. Robots and artificial intelligence have taken most jobs. Environmental collapse has meant scorching sunlight most of the year and the extinction of beneficial insects and most animal species. Humans have met the crises with nanotech and genetic modifications, including their own. Drones shaped like birds and bugs not only pollinate, but also provide constant, camera-feed surveillance everywhere. And people—if they are wealthy—may “Revise” on a cellular level, surviving outside without skin lotion and enjoying enhanced brainpower, stamina, musculature, and beauty. The son of ill-paid civil servants, Dorian started in school smart and athletic, but he has fallen badly behind, realizing he cannot compete—not in college, not in careers, not in romance—against expensively Revised upper-class kids. Taking a cue from RPG-spycraft video gaming, Dorian maintains a double life: hardworking student by day, burglar by night, thwarting the ubiquitous monitoring devices of affluent suburbia while methodically robbing rich neighbors with a classmate as his partner- in crime. Dorian wants to finance physical and mental Revisions for them both and perhaps symbolically strike against the ennui and injustices of the system. Meanwhile, police start to close in. Even worse, Dorian’s secret is known to his 14-year-old kid brother, Jaden. Jaden is a self-diagnosed psychopath, and if the authorities knew his mental state, there would be harsh consequences for the household. Increasingly resentful of Dorian, Jaden nurtures his own, much darker plans.
Readers may be put in mind of popular YA dystopia authors riffing on Orwellian conformity (usually with a female protagonist); witness Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy and Veronica Roth’s Divergent three-parter. But Graves, like bad-seed Jaden, is after bigger things (plus he wraps it all up in one sizable volume). While it may bear the trendy tag cyberpunk, this novel is one specimen of the computer-hype-happy sci-fi genre whose grievances and characters would resonate with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who gets a shoutout here. The book’s facets include the inequities of class and wealth in America, the cri de coeur of young have-nots against privileged elites, and the desperation of a member of this Kurzweilian lost generation to reinvent himself (in a literally Edisonian sense, with neural links, surgical implants, and subdermal databases) for acceptance into a neo-aristocracy. These actions turn out to be as disastrous for Dorian as they were for Gatsby (and, as with Gatsby, an unattainable girl provides added motivation and obsession). Unlike so much else in cyber-sploitation’s literary data archives, Graves does not concentrate on virtual-reality FX blasts, awesome mechas, or cool hacker tricks and capers. Yes, such ingredients are present, but the tropes never overshadow Dorian’s essential dilemmas, relationships, and dread, conveyed in a measured, sharply observant narrative that eschews merely fast-forwarding to the next act of mayhem. The wonder-filled, terrible future the author invokes feels uncomfortably real, inhabited, and just around the corner.
Teen-centered, future-shock tragedy of a high order, a literate upgrade over standard gamer-hacker sci-fi.