In this debut sci-fi novel, a doctor stumbles on a government conspiracy involving human experimentation.
In 2087, American society has been changed by the Great Purge—a temporary collapse of the social safety net orchestrated by anti-government forces—and an electromagnetic pulse called the Blackout that wiped out all digitally recorded learning. Today, few own books or are even literate, instead using screens that display “simplified and dumbed down Gliffs,” part pictograph, part acronym. Nearly everyone, in the Eastern United States at least, uses an implanted Atman approved by the Bureau of Wellness. Dr. Joe Barnes is one of the few to prefer a handheld device, suspicious of how the implant might affect the body’s electrical currents. When patients at Joe’s hospital start dying suddenly, he’s compelled to investigate, and soon turns up troubling clues. Though aided by his irascible elderly mentor as well as his best friend, a detective, Joe runs up against a flinty hospital bureaucracy backed by powerful forces. Yet the hospital also is caring for his wife, Mary, pregnant after many years of trying. Joe must use a paper dossier that he can barely read to understand—and try to stop—horrifying medical experiments on human subjects linked to World War II atrocities. In his novel, Augenstein draws readers in with Joe’s narrative voice; he’s a decent, good-hearted, hardworking man who is determined to do right by his patients. The historical basis for the tale’s medical horrors lends them an appalling credence, underscored by glimpses of a debased, cruel popular culture as seen in a reality show that’s slightly reminiscent of Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian (1969). But some plot elements don’t seem well thought out; in 68 years, will people still chuckle about patients who sexually harass nurses or have “marijuana misdemeanors”? It seems odd that paper, seemingly indispensable in a Blackout, would disappear so fast. And naming Joe’s “sidekick nurse” “Betty Bathory” signals what should be a surprise twist.
Despite a few missteps, an involving, tense, and visceral near-future thriller.