June 02, 2016
(++++) NO LATER THAN TOMORROW
The God Wave. By Patrick Hemstreet. Harper Voyager. $24.99.
This could be happening right now. Patrick Hemstreet’s debut novel, the first book of a trilogy, starts with a title clearly taken from the biggest news in science in decades: the discovery of the Higgs boson, the so-called “god particle.” And if a particle, why not a wave? But this is a story of biology, not physics, its intriguing title being only the first of many twists and turns, some of them remarkably subtle, in a tale made chilling primarily by the distinct possibility that if it is not happening yet, someone just might use the precepts of The God Wave to make it happen mighty soon. It’s that realistic.
The wave of the title is a brain wave, so far undiscovered (as far as we ordinary humans know), that operates above the measurable frequencies of alpha, beta and gamma waves and that can lead to manifestation of superhuman abilities (which Hemstreet says are really human abilities) in the 90% of the brain that generally goes unused (that is a fiction, but one of such long standing that Hemstreet’s employment of it is not too big a strain on one’s credulity).
The primary characters here are well-meaning, if flawed, scientists, and yes, they are types to some extent; but Hemstreet does a good job of humanizing them. One is idealistic Chuck Brenton, a neuroscience researcher at Johns Hopkins. He is looking for real-world applications of brain waves. After all, if they can move the needle during an electroencephalogram, why not use them to drive cars or paint pictures? In today’s real world, there are already experimental systems that let quadriplegics and other severely physically limited people use their brains for certain types of functionality. Hemstreet’s creation of a desire by Brenton to go just a bit beyond that readily passes the believability test. The problem for Brenton is that math is not his expertise, and he needs help using very complex aspects of it to turn brain waves into commands and actions.
That is where MIT professor Matt Streegman comes in. A borderline misanthrope who is a genius in his own field, Streegman hears an interview with Benton and thinks immediately of how Brenton’s research, if pushed just a bit farther, could benefit Streegman’s wife, Lucy. She is hospitalized and comatose, but has active brain waves. Perhaps Brenton’s findings – aided by Streegman’s math expertise – could let Streegman communicate with Lucy. Besides – and this plot point does strain credulity a bit – it just so happens that Streegman works not only in higher mathematics but also in robotics. Anyone who remembers Edgar Allan Poe’s deeply chilling “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” will see just how wrong things could go in this scenario, although that is not quite the way they actually do go wrong. (In fact, Lucy more or less disappears from the story after being used to set up Streegman’s background. A little more attention to her would better have humanized her husband.)
It is the partnership of Brenton and Streegman that gets the book going (the scene-setting is a touch on the slow side, but after all, this is the start of a trilogy). The two form Advanced Kinetics, gather the usual variegated mixture of subjects – gamer, artist, martial-arts specialist, construction worker – and engage in intense research. And fault lines between the men develop soon enough. Brenton’s goal is to aid the handicapped and make sea and space exploration easier and safer. Streegman, far less altruistic and more focused on a big financial payoff, is quite willing to get military rather than medical backing for their lab, and his stronger personality soon leads to the involvement of one General Howard, who really is a cardboard character: he gets the lab working on complex research, for military purposes, with the super-secret Deep Shield, and Brenton does not realize what is happening until there is no turning back. But the test subjects themselves (Lanfen, Mike, Mini, Sara and Tim) know that military control of their growing abilities can lead to disaster, and those newly developed capabilities give them powers of which even Brenton and Streegman are unaware. No, this is no Frankenstein or R.U.R., but Hemstreet calls up elements of those tales as the plot of The God Wave enmeshes the characters more and more tightly. The book fits firmly in the SF/action genre while raising the sorts of questions that only the greats in that field raise consistently: philosophical queries about individuality, creativity, and what it means to be fully human. Hemstreet also manages to employ some sly humor from time to time, with references to films ranging from The Matrix to Independence Day to Transformers. The result is a provocative novel that is not only fast-paced and fun to read but also unusually thoughtful and involving. And its cliffhanger ending, which is quite well done, promises more of the same when the series continues.