In the year 2085, Nathan Wainwright, chief architect of advanced computers that regulate a ubiquitous virtual reality environment, is lured into top-level U.S. government intrigue and treachery thanks to his sideline as vigilante.
Earth has been radically transformed, not only by natural disasters resulting from climate change and pollution, but also by technology spawned under the 40-year presidency of an American strongman/dictator, Victor Marconi, who showed his mettle by instantly, ruthlessly vaporizing major cities in Russia, China, India, and Brazil, which had formed an alliance and seemingly orchestrated a monstrous Pearl Harbor–style sneak nuclear attack. One of Marconi’s other feats (prior to his suicide during a corruption investigation) was sanctioning the creation of Sleepernet, a virtual reality system accessible to all and monitored by 10 space-based supercomputers so advanced that they have outsized personalities to match their mythic names (Zeus, Olympus, Titan, Hera, Isis, etc.). Nathan was foremost among 10 brilliant engineers who brought Sleepernet online a decade earlier. Now, with a strong Bruce Wayne–like drive borne from tragedy—his wife died in an early Sleepernet snafu—Nathan dons a high-tech disguise (more like the Grim Reaper than Shazam) and foils lawbreakers and evildoers. He fights crime with or without the assistance of his fellow Sleepernet creators, who don’t always share his ideals. Nathan is approached by sexy Susan DiRevka, a congressional aide who fears that a senator has been replaced by an imposter (easy enough; it’s a peculiarity of the post-Marconi era that elected officials go masked and anonymous). But is Nathan being set up by those who covet Sleepernet as the ultimate tool of power and surveillance? Or is the conspiracy even bigger?
Punctuating his chapters with pithy Mark Twain quotes (“Be respectful to your superiors, if you have any”) and working Winston Churchill–isms into the narrative here and there, debut author McCool isn’t the first sci-fi writer to try to reboot the superhero aesthete with a what-if premise: What if costumed avengers were real or at least scientifically achievable and socially valid? But he approaches the material with a degree of realism that surpasses merely riffing ironically on clichés of the funny pages. The highly readable results lean more toward cyberpunk than Stan Lee (maybe Frank Miller is a good compromise), with high-tech combat described against a political background smacking of the George W. Bush era—a fascistic USA ruled by corporate stooges and military-industrial warmongers who are never held accountable, especially not by the propaganda-spewing media or the docile, duped, dopily patriotic public. Hence Nathan’s crusade, which ultimately (and rather unsurprisingly) uncovers the lies on which the unconstitutional Homeland Security–style reach of the Marconi presidency/personality cult is based. Scientific infodumps can grow tortuous: Virtual reality overlaps with the real thing (even to the point of distorting space-time), and omnipotent AIs endow their programmers/votaries with demigod skills to match superhuman strengths—the proverbial gadgetry sufficiently advanced so as to be indistinguishable from magic.
Team-superhero–style action meets cyberpunk sci-fi with satisfying, sometimes-head-spinning results.