In this alternative history/sci-fi novel, a woman vows to re-create her husband’s invention, which could be a powerful weapon.
It’s 1940, and 22-year-old Howard Russo, an American inventor studying at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, has been developing a prototype for a camera that could be “hooked up to a computer” (itself such a new creation that he has to explain “Computers are real”). The computer could then be programmed to manipulate photographic images, Howard believes; not as Photoshop does now, but by capturing “someone’s soul, mind, whatever.” The photos would show people the inner truth of things, and make “this goddamn world a better place.” When the American and British governments ask Howard to take aerial photos in the Caribbean, he agrees—but Noboru Industries, a Japanese camera company, steals his prototype and the inventor winds up dead. After learning the truth, Howard’s wife, Sylvia, an engineering student, pledges to re-create the device, using her husband’s notes, and exact revenge. Over 20 years, Sylvia pursues groundbreaking computer research, first with Alan Turing, then at IBM-like Lansing Technologies, where she rises to the top. Meanwhile, Noboru’s resentful, power-hungry head engineer Masuki Shin tries to perfect the stolen prototype—for mind control, not to reveal anyone’s inner essence. In 1963, Masuki plans to focus his camera on the American presidency, but not if Sylvia can stop him. Snyder-Carroll (With the Tonic of Wildness, 2016, etc.) writes a fast-paced thriller that is strong on description, especially in the Caribbean section: “Hundreds of bananas growing out of crimson beaks, leaves as big as doors, trees strangling other trees.” But her characters can seem overwrought, even in their dramatic circumstances, and often selfish; Howard, for example, nearly rapes a young woman, only stopping when he notices his cat staring at him, and Sylvia mind-controls someone she cares for. But the book’s major stumbling block remains its impossible-to-believe, soul-capturing, mind-controlling central invention. Perhaps the concept would be more successful if cameras and computers were less familiar, but readers understand that they don’t work by magic.
While offering intriguing elements, this mind-control thriller lacks a convincing premise.