This cyborg mystery novel is what Intelligence could have been

Illustration for article titled This cyborg mystery novel is what emIntelligence/em could have been

One of the reasons Intelligence has fizzled is that it took a solid premise—a government agent with a chip in brain—and failed to do anything interesting with it. K.B. Spangler's novel Digital Divide, on the other hand, takes the idea of cyborg agents and runs with it in a tale of murder and anti-cyborg prejudice.

Rachel Peng was a promising US Army Warrant Officer on her way to West Point and a career as an officer when she was recruited by the Office of Adaptive and Complementary Enhancement Technologies, the federal agency that placed a computer chip in her head and turned her and a few hundred other brilliant young people into cyborgs. Five years later, Rachel and her fellow Agents are still dealing with the physical and psychic scars of the OACET pilot program, and they are freshly out to a public that isn't sure they like the idea of cyborgs running around their country. Rachel has been assigned as the OACET liaison to Washington, DC's Metropolitan Police, where she and her partner, non-enhanced Detective Raul Santino, deal with constant resentment from the rest of the police force while spending their days doing paperwork on lost smart phones and reseting passwords.

The monotony is finally broken when Rachel and Santino find themselves assigned to a murder case, one that involves technological feats few people could pull off. As Rachel begins to suspect that the crime is somehow aimed at OACET, she also finds herself pulled into the orbit of an anti-cyborg politician who claims that cyborgs represent walking violations of certain Constitutional privacies—which they very well may. All the while, she has to remain a model cyborg in the public eye as OACET's public relations campaign marches on and her fellow cyborgs bid for wider acceptance.

Digital Divide is the first in a series of Rachel Peng novels and it's set in the same universe as and features many of the characters from Spangler's long-running and popular webcomic A Girl and Her Fed. I'll admit that I've attempted to read A Girl and Her Fed on a few occasions, but had difficulty getting past the goofiness of the first few pages. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Digital Divide isn't a goofy book—and, in fact, explains the initial silliness of AGAHF. It is, however, a rather funny book. Even before she became a cyborg, Rachel was accustomed to dealing with harassment and prejudice, and she has developed an armor of biting humor. Santino is her perfect match, a quick-witted, hard-drinking physics and technology geek who easily trades barbs with Rachel and wishes someone had asked him to become a cyborg. And, happily, there is no sexual tension between this buddy cop pair; Rachel is gay.

While there is a mystery running over the surface of the novel, Digital Divide is to a large extent an exercise in world-building. It asks, in part, "If we woke up tomorrow and learned that the government employed cyborgs, how would American society react?" Spangler doesn't entirely demonize the people who hate and fear cyborgs, suggesting that, while some of Rachel's adversaries are genuine assholes, others are simply people wary of such a huge leap in transhumanism (and some just view cyborg hate as a convenient campaign platform).

Where Spangler really shines, however, is in her development of OACET itself. The network of cyborgs functions as a quasi-hive mind, a perverse family where everyone knows everyone else's business and no one is ever truly alone. Spangler clearly has great fun imagining the ways the Agents interact, how they function as a unit (especially in their own bizarre headquarters which I found myself wishing was a real place), and how they tailor the chip to their individual personalities. With hundreds of different Agents, and a good many appearing within the pages of the book, we're treated to the myriad ways someone might use a networked computer in their brain. There isn't always a perfect scientific explanation for the sorts of things the Agents can do, and on occasion we have to really suspend our disbelief, but Spangler sets forth a lot of neat ideas about how different people might develop different abilities with a little technological enhancement, and how groups of network people might share those abilities and information. Perhaps it's wise that Rachel is one of the less developed cyborgs, although she has some unique talents of her own.

The story's twisty, turny mystery does reach a solution, but not a conclusion. It's clear that, if anything, solving this particular series of crimes only plunges Rachel into a more profound mystery, one that could have major consequences for OACET. And after spending the length of the novel with her, I'm eager to pick up the next one to see what's next for Rachel Peng—and to dive into the archives of A Girl and Her Fed to learn more about the world OACET inhabits.

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Oh, also — re the comparison to Intelligence?

Spangler was about to pitch to a standard publisher, when she heard the early announcements for Intelligence, and decided that turnaround time risked making her look like she was doing Intelligence fanfic. So she rushed into print with self-publishing.

As a consequence, Digital Divide is eligible for the 2013 Hugo for best novel (and you better believe I'm nominating it, because it is damn good).