A sci-fi debut about a boy who’s deathly afraid of water and the family who helps reconstruct his mind after a tragic accident.
Twelve-year-old Minnesota native Cessini Madden is brilliant, much like his father, Daniel, who’s a critical systems engineer. Unfortunately, the child has a condition called aquagenic urticaria, which makes his flesh break out in hives at the touch of water. He doesn’t make friends easily, but his dad, a widower, invites a woman named Robin and her young daughter, Meg, into their lives. As Daniel works in a data center, he allows the two preteens to develop their own projects in adjacent lab space; there, Cessini works to build a robot named Packet. While doing so, he grows increasingly anxious about the lab’s sprinkler system and finally decides to sabotage it—with traumatic results. Later, the mixed family moves to the beautiful Tasmanian island of Hobart. There, Daniel and Robin commence work at a place called DigiSci, and Cessini forces himself to confront his fear of water as dramatically as possible—by scaling a waterfall. The boy meets a tragic end, but author Wolf keeps the exact details secret throughout his fragmented, challenging narrative. When readers first meet the protagonist, for example, he’s an incomplete mind, experiencing a semblance of life via a computer program and believing himself to be the entity called Packet; it turns out that the boy Cessini has been dead for 10 years. Wolf alternates chapters in which Daniel, Robin, and Meg try to bring their loved one back toward humanity with ones in which Packet remembers Cessini’s life. The author steeps the tale in hard science and history, as when Daniel wants to administer an Enhanced Blackwell Inversion Test—a variation on the Turing Test, which attempts to gauge a machine’s similarity to a human. Often, the prose is loftily concise, as when Cessini says, “I want to be a computer. I need to be a human.” Yet a few scenes, including the data-center accident, drag with the weight of excessive detail. Overall, this uniquely structured story will most appeal to fans of dense, hard science fiction, artificial intelligence, and futurist literature.
A rewarding tesseract of a novel that doesn’t release its secrets easily.