In Starr’s debut cyber-thriller, the future is here—and it wants to sell you things.
Professor Yuri Petrov, who teaches graduate-level computer science at the University of Illinois, is a throwback to the days of human teaching. The Russian native was himself taught by people, not by the teaching machines that are now ubiquitous throughout the United States. Teaching isn’t the only thing that’s computerized; indeed, most people’s lives are ruled by automation—and the advertising that goes along with it. Corporations now use nearly everything to advertise their products, including elevator music, toilet paper, food, and as it turns out, even the teaching programs themselves. Yuri accidentally discovers that an ad agency called Sellco has been placing subliminal messages inside every teaching machine in the country, and they’re not just advertising Pepsi and weight-loss drugs. They’re feeding something far more sinister to the American people, and the people don’t even know it. Yuri must get off the grid and hide in order to expose Sellco while protecting his own life. However, even the best-laid plans go awry, and he soon finds himself in an altered state of consciousness no one had ever dreamed possible—until now. Starr weaves a thought-provoking tapestry of future tech and hypothetical concepts, although it sometimes requires his characters to be unnecessarily verbose and explanatory. The plot covers the standard bases regarding government conspiracies and evil corporations, but Starr manages to make it feel fresh by highlighting the professor’s old-fashioned yet sprightly personality. A thoroughly enjoyable protagonist, Yuri never quite falls into the category of curmudgeon, but instead balances his enthusiasm for technology with his love of doing things in traditional ways. Starr keeps his focus on the human element, and as such, the novel never devolves into horror; rather, it gently prods at questions of what it means to be human, and how people can retain their humanity in a world of rigid control and materialism.
A solid, enjoyable first novel, despite its tendency to veer into wordy technological discussions.