Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Influx Is Not A Good Book

Or a look at why I wouldn't recommend Influx
by Daniel Suarez

Influx is a technothriller about a secret cabal who vanish disruptive technologies and inventors in an effort to protect the status quo. Jon Grady, a brilliant rogue Scientist and inventor has just discovered a way to bend gravity fields, a discovery that should net him a Nobel Prize and change the course of physics. But on the night of his triumph he and his colleagues are kidnapped and inducted into the secret world of The Bureau of Technology Control with all of its wonders of hidden Science. Now Jon Grady is given unlimited resources to further his technology, but only if its kept secret and he submits to total control. Jon Grady isn't a man to submit to a gilded prison, but to escape he must outwit captors who have the future at their disposal.

Which is a pretty great sounding premise right? It makes Influx sound like a Scientifically literate story that delivers imaginative, Sci-fi action that might just challenge notions about the role of technology in society. The trouble is, Influx proved not to be this kind of book and really failed to deliver on this promising premise. And, as a result, I found that Influx really wasn't a very satisfying reading experience.

TLDR: I really did not enjoy Influx.

Jon Grady, the protagonist of the novel, is a poster child of why I found Influx so unsatisfying. The conceit of the character is that he is a free-thinking, self-made supergenius who is too libertine and brilliant for academia. Which, right off the bat, is pretty unlikely. The notion that you can just bootstrap yourself into being a thought leader in high energy physics without formal training or access to the resources of Academia is about as likely as Jon Grady being the Kwisatz Haderach. Which would all be fine if Jon Grady was written as a supergenius: if Jon Grady was able to demonstrate with his narration or actions that he is plausibly a once-in-a-generation mind, then his unlikely situation could be overlooked in service to the story. Unfortunately Jon Grady never demonstrates his brilliance and is written as a pretty regular, not especially intelligent guy. The novel does try to get around this somewhat by giving Jon Grady a special synesthesia where he conflates colours, math, and music in his mind and that this is part of what makes him a supergenius. But this too is done poorly with the synesthesia treated more like a convenient superpower rather than a consistent mental outlook/condition that he has to deal with or regularly utilizes. Also, I am in no way an expert on stynesthesia, but the portrayals in this book read as extremely superficial or at least highly unconvincing. Collectively, Jon Grady is just not a convincing genius which means that I fundamentally didn't buy into the novel.

(Incidentally, Jon Grady is a great example of why I think we often experience geniuses in fiction from the perspective of a colleague or friend. Everyone can relate to being around someone smarter than them, but very few people are actually legitimately brilliant. So it is much easier to make a Watson's internal life believable than it is to sell a convincing Sherlock.)

The same systemic issues that prevent Jon Grady from being a convincing protagonist also serve to poison a lot of other facets of Influx. A huge number of plot developments do not make sense under scrutiny and seem to occur mostly as a convenient way to advance the plot. For instance, a prison cell designed to feed inmates via a surgically implanted umbilical system can conveniently also magically prepare passable pho soup for some reason. It's distractingly silly. Similarly, the villains of the novel are cartoonishly two-dimensional, bland, and, for being the masterminds of the BTC, distractingly stupid. Instead of getting convincing, earnest villains who believe in their mandate and are impressive in their intelligence we get laughable strawmen with cartoon diabolical plots. The love interest of the story is a genetically engineered woman meant to be perfect, which means that along with enhanced strength and intelligence she has perfect beauty and irresistible sexy pheromones which is just amazingly foolish, sexist, and juvenile. Influx, for being sold as am intelligent techno-thriller alternative is just full of really, really dumb choices. 

This even extends to the Science of Influx. Influx seems to very proudly announce itself as a Scientifically literate piece of fiction. I have an armchair-enthusiast level of knowledge about high-energy particle physics, so the collection of superficial physics buzz-words in Influx could very well checkout and be fine. I am however a cardiac cell biologist who specializes in calcium ionic signalling so I know a fair amount about neurobiology and specifically the processes in neurobiology that involve ionic calcium signals. As a result I can tell you that pretty much the entirety of the neurobiology in Influx is wrong: either vaguely mistaken or downright bonkers incorrect. For instance the idea that glial cells (a family of neuron-like brain cells) constitute a second "chemical brain" that works independent of your "more electrical" normal brain is ridiculous. In reality glial cells are integral to the one brain in your skull and seem to play mostly a supportive role in coupling things like blood flow to brain activity. (BTW, the *entire* brain is a chemical brain.) The other glial idea that what separates supergeniuses from regular people is a difference in the number of glial cells in their brain is also ludicrous and actually pretty problematic (since imbuing physical differences to intelligence like this is a slippery slope to craniometry batshittery). Of the Science I could parse through the condescending grapeshot of jargon well enough to assess, it was all entirely wrong. So Influx also fails utterly at being scientifically plausible. 

I clearly would not recommend Influx. I think it is a failure as a technothriller and just generally an unenjoyable book. If you want to read a really good, really scientifically literate technothriller, I cannot recommend Ramez Naam's Nexus enough. It is everything Influx tried and failed to be: smart, exciting, and a really thoughtful examination of the role of technology in society. If you would like to read a bonkers book about rugged, misunderstood geniuses facing institutional morons I'd read Atlas Shrugged. Thematically Influx and Atlas Shrugged are crazy similar and Ayn Rand's novel, despite being loopy and toxic, is at least written with the zeal of the true believer. (I kid you not, there is a scene in Influx where Jon Grady forgets his name and nearly calls himself John Galt. *Seriously*.) And, real talk, a novel that compares unfavourably to Atlas Shrugged is not a book you should ever, ever read. So please, read something else.

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