Daniel Suarez's Influx Shows The Paranoid Side of Techno-Optimism

Illustration for article titled Daniel Suarezs emInflux/em Shows The Paranoid Side of Techno-Optimism

I was prepared to be annoyed by Daniel Suarez's novel Influx. This techno-thriller, which has already been optioned as a movie, has the feel (and logic) of a blockbuster movie on paper. But then I realized: Influx is science fiction as Hugo Gernsback would have written it if he lived today, a thriller packed with modern science.

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Spoilers ahead...

In Influx, Suarez looks to a question I've heard more than once when thinking about the scientific optimism that we had throughout the middle of the Cold War: Where did it go, and how did we go to the Moon in the 1960s, but now the best we can manage is a better smartphone?

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The explanation posited by Suarez is that at some point in the middle of the Cold War, the U.S. stood up a shadowy organization called the Bureau of Technology Control, which sought to collect major scientific and technological advances and prevent them from disrupting the world. Over the years, the BTC cracked the holy grails of technology: fusion power, cures for cancer, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and quite a lot more — but held them back from the general public. Their offices are like stepping into a futuristic world, and their technology is decades ahead of everyone else on the planet and beyond.

In Influx, a particle physicist named Jon Grady gets thrown into the path of the BTC when his team successfully builds a gravity mirror. It's a major achievement, one that has the potential to change the world. Right as they're resting on their laurels, they're attacked by a group of anti-technology activists who proceed to blow them and their equipment up — or so everyone thinks. Grady awakens to find that he's really in the hands of BTC Director Graham Henderick, and he's excited at the potential for the scientist's work, enough for him to request that Grady join the Bureau to continue it. When Grady refuses, he's locked up in a high-tech jail cell called Hibernity that's completely isolated from the world, where he's summarily tortured, interrogated and left to be broken.

It's in this prison that he's contacted by other prisoners who, unbeknownst to their captors, have slowly taken over the prison. There, they do the only thing they can practically do: plan for escape and ways to topple the BTC. When the opportunity comes, Grady is in the wind, and the novel turns into a frantic chase as Hendrick frantically mobilizes the BTC to recover their missing prisoner.

Illustration for article titled Daniel Suarezs emInflux/em Shows The Paranoid Side of Techno-Optimism
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Influx oozes with a sort of technological optimism, and I can see where fans of Michael Crichton would enjoy this. It's loaded with the latest in scientific ideas, alongside a fast paced thriller. Over the last couple of years, I've gone to a couple of talks that focused on upcoming technologies: robotics, computing systems, 3D printing, cheap space technology, and so on, and this book feels like it's taken the subjects of most of those talks (and by extension, the research being conducted on them now) and meshes them together into a paranoid read that pulls out all the stops for what some of this technology brings to the table. There's energy guns, satellite-based gravity mirrors, 3D printing and nanobots and AIs run all over the place.

At the same time, there are some interesting subplots that help drive the story along: The BTC has vast networks of AI programs running all over the internet and throughout their internal systems. Some are dumb — they're single purpose, calculating various things, only to be junked when they screw up or they run their course. Others are a bit smarter, acting as assistants or helpers for some of the characters. Some have broken away, helping a couple of rival factions of the BTC in Russia and China, and seem to be the chief motivating factor for Grady's imprisonment.

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The stated purpose for the BTC is to hold humanity back from overpopulation, which seems a bit counterintuitive (especially when the surefire way to curb population growth is through education and a higher standard of living — people tend to have fewer children, even as they live longer), but it's an institution that's more interested in absolute control: control over the scientists it's locked up and the technology they've plundered, control over the rogue BTC fragments, and ultimately, control over the entire United States.

In this mix of technochatter, Suarez puts together a really fun, jumpy story. This is scifi in the blockbusteriest of ways: if Michael Bay is picked to direct the coming film adaptation, there's probably no better choice. There's a ton of nonsensical action, explosions and running around shooting, not to mention some really cool scenes that would look fantastic in Michael Bay-eque slow motion and perpetual sunsets. It's also wickedly funny at points, from the variety of cloned henchmen and their special forces 'father', to one of the AI systems apologizing to Grady and allies as it tries to simultaneously aid and kill them.

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Despite my earlier reservations, I really came to enjoy Influx. It's entertaining, in a very pulpy sort of way. I'd like to read another novel with the same material from someone like Charles Stross, because it would be a radically different take on the subject — but it probably wouldn't be as much unrestrained fun as this one was. It's the exact sort of science fiction Hugo Gernsback put to paper back in the 1920s: technology everywhere, with the lone inventor, poised to save the world. This time, it's got more slow motion and special effects built in. I imagine Gernsback would approve.

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DISCUSSION

I read Influx too. I liked it. Like a lot of science fiction, this is about current problems. I focused on those aspects of the story.

What holds up or supports innovation? What are the forces, both seen and unseen that act?

What are our brightest minds doing? What are people afraid they will do?

The lead character had to lie about what he was really working on to get funding from a Venture Capital firm. When they checked out his progress they instantly said, "You lied to us!" and then "How can we monetize this?" There is a reason that there are 300 firms trying to create the next "Killer App" by not 300 working to create an energy break through.

How much of the "Space Race" was about military superiority with the Russians? Now look at where we making our advances, where are money is going. It's in drone technology for weapons and surveillance. YOu want money? Figure out the DoD pitch for it.

We have a massive crisis in energy that is destroying the planet, why aren't tens of billions being spent on other methods to create store and transfer it? Because hundreds of millions are being spent pretending it isn't really a problem. Hundreds of millions are spent to convince politicians not to fund an "Energy Race" or a "Save the Planet" race. There are no campaign contributions coming from Big Solar or Big Fusion to them. Only from extraction industries like Big Oil and Coal.

What are our brightest minds doing? 1) Going into debt. 2) Going into finance. 3) Going into destruction.

One of the premises of the book (and for the Bureau of Technology Control agency, is that the people after WWII at the CIA saw that new technology had the ability to disrupt humanity. Their mandate is to maintain the status quo, even a status quo that involves taking brilliant minds and locking them away because their ideas would disrupt power players. Crazy eh?

How much different is that scenario that a world in which we direct our geniuses into gaming monetary systems, creating more and faster death or creating "killer apps?" (Although each of these areas can lead to a breakthrough in another area, those other areas are not the main focus.)

How much different is the BTC than the Koch Brothers fighting back on even the notion of climate change being real, so as to maintain their Fossil fuel status quo?

One on the tools that the BTC uses to try and convince the inventors of these problems are computer models of the impact of the new technology. They always lead to disasters. Yet like all models, they make assumptions.

What Suarez does with this book is to turn the actual barriers into an entity that embodies those reasons and barriers. And as such it is easier to see it for what it is and the assumptions that are made.

I recommend the book, it's a fun read and it really moves. Also if you haven't read Daemon and Freedom(tm) you should, they are really brilliant.