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The Boost
by Stephen Baker
Tor, $24.99, paperback, 336pp
Publication Date: May 20, 2014
In this story, it’s finally happened: everyone is one with the Internet. The Chinese were the ones who invented the “boost” – the ultimate tool to control their population. Figures, huh? Some argued it would make the government more transparent but nothing could be further from the truth. With the implanted “boost,” one has direct access to all available information with the merest thought. Any experience can be enhanced with a special app. The author posits all kinds of cultural changes: food is no longer a commodity or a cause for socializing, everyone eats nutritionally enhanced pellets and uses an app of choice to simulate the taste and texture of a favorite food. Road signs have all but disappeared; what need is there when locations are instantly available through a GPS app? And sex? The only reason to have physical sex is the desire to procreate.

Ralf grew up in a broken family. His father was one of the first to decry the boost; warning it would make slaves of us all. He ran off to South America to carry on the good fight and was never heard from again. His mother was one of the first to have the implant; she worked for the US government and was one of the first guinea pigs. Ralf had the implant since he was a toddler and to him it was his reality. It was a world in which he excelled while his older brother was a tween when he got the implant and it was always a challenge for him to use it. His brother left home eventually and went to Mexico where he attempted to live a ‘wild’ life; off the grid, so to speak. Wild humans were those who rejected the implant. There was a large enclave around the Amish community in Pennsylvania, and in Mexico - the drug cartels. They, of course, would have no interest in being tracked in the internet.

Life is good for Ralf until a friend comes to him with the news that the next big boost upgrade includes something surprising and not shared with the general population. When Ralf looks at the code, he realizes he needs to stop the upgrade. But the upgrade and its “enhancements” are being pushed by a ruthless businessman who has his fingers in both governments: US and China. After Ralf’s implant is violently removed; he has to learn to exist in his brother’s world – deaf, dumb and blind. Meanwhile, Ralf’s mother also has reason to distrust the upcoming upgrade and eventually decides to join her two sons in Mexico in the hopes of saving something from the upcoming debacle.

The style of the book is interesting but sometimes a bit off-putting. I felt as if the author was keeping me and the characters an arms-length apart. But, more interestingly, is the author’s ability to make the characters completely human and believable. No one is a dynamic hero, although Ralf comes close, and no one is a complete monster, although the businessman comes very close. They react in very human, and often stupid or contradictory, ways to threats or promises of reward. Our villain is motivated by nothing more than simple greed. Even when a threat is eminent, some of the characters just want nothing more than the next meal or to go home.

The author did not follow a clichéd ending but I thought it was too simple. He was true to his story though; the ending was in keeping with the characters and the style of the story. I can’t recommend or not-recommend; I’m really pretty middle-of-the-road on this one. There were some interesting ideas of the cultural impact of such an implant but the author didn’t follow through on enough of them to lend depth to the story. But some of them could spur lively discussions, even if it’s just in your head. ~~ Catherine Book

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