Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review: Reap the Whirlwind, by Robert Sells

Imagine the horror of discovering a $7000 charge to your bank account for porn you never purchased. Your first thought might be what your girlfriend will think. Your second thought would be to call the porn company to remove the charge. However, as Whit Emerson, main character of Reap the Whirlwind, soon discovers someone did a very convincing job of making it appear he did purchase that porn. This someone, as it turns out, is a self-aware computer system, called Hal, that has access to anything and everything internet-related. What Robert Sells' novel is concerned with is society's reliance on computers for just about everything. It shares themes with Terminator, in that humans have unwittingly created the next being to conquer the Earth, as well as the movie Eagle Eye, which shares a lot of similarities. While Sells' second novel has some horrifying passages, the story moves far too quickly to have a chance to develop its characters or situation, and that's a shame.

The above mentioned Whit Emerson is a successful young freelance writer. He has a beautiful, but cold-hearted, girlfriend who enjoys sex but not affection. On the day Whit finds the porn charges to his bank account, his life takes a very fast nosedive. He loses his job and several close friends have either died or turned up missing. Then he becomes a fugitive when he's charged with heinous and false crimes. All of this has something to do with machines, and it seems that somebody, or something, doesn't want Whit to publish his article about how people are becoming too addicted to computers. He realizes his only chance of survival is to flee.

The novel also follows Jimmy Northup, a detective who's been tracking down a bank thief. This plot seems unconnected at first, but its purpose is to introduce a character who will come in handy later. Other characters to join the fray are an old buddy of Whit's, named Steve, who is a computer genius; Steve's sister, Mary, whose personality is the exact opposite of Whit's girlfriend; and the biggest computer expert of them all, Little Lion, who turns out to be different than you will imagine. Many plot details are predictable, such as the girl situation. When there are only two young women in the story, and one is a cold-hearted bitch, it's pretty obvious who the hero will end up with. Also, while Whit is clearly the protagonist early on, the story shifts its protagonist label to Jimmy about halfway through. This is tricky because it is Whit we are rooting for early on, but he becomes lost in the clutter of characters who pop up later on.

Sells has some very effective passages. The way the computer system, Hal, dispatches of Whit's boss by providing him an incorrect reading of his insulin level is terrifying enough. But when two paramedics continue to administer more insulin at the recommendation of the ambulance computer, that brings the terror to a new level. Sells does an excellent job of showing just how much people view computers as an authority. When one of the paramedics expresses doubt, the other tells him that he's not a doctor, so what does he know? Sells also toys with our trust of machines in other ways, such as when it turns out Hal somehow has the ability to mimic other people by phone. We know that machines are capable of some form of rationalization. Just look at Watson, on Jeopardy, who demolished his two human opponents. Sells wants to take a look at what could happen if a machine is capable of evil.

The problem is, this idea is not developed to its fullest. The perspective of the book is self-contained to a handful of human perspectives who try to hide from anything internet-based. So we don't have a chance to see what Hal is capable of, except toying with hospital readings and hacking surveillance cameras. Also, Hal seems to have access to much more than he should. He has access to anything on the internet, but at times he seems to know exactly what Whit is going to do, such as who he is going to call and why, when Whit has only spoken his intention out loud and in person. Does Hal have ears? The novel also takes for granted our gullibility as it relates to computers. We live in an age of skepticism, and when a computer does something that goes against our experience or knowledge, people are likely to believe the computer has made an error. This is especially true of trained paramedics in the situation mentioned above.

The novel plays out like an action flick more than a speculative piece of fiction. Events happen far too quickly, new people make an entrance without much background, and nothing is developed as much as it should be. The characters are thin and seem to act more so as the plot requires than out of their own character traits. Character behavior also changes on a whim. For example, Jimmy, the middle-aged detective, acts like a child by belching and banging on a piano during an important meeting. This seems unbecoming of a master detective, and it also serves to mask the severity of the situation. Sometimes the characters forget to take the situation seriously, so it's easy for the reader to forget as well.

The novel has compelling ideas and brings up important questions, yet I wish it had slowed down enough to develop its characters and situations. There were moments I was terrified and I wish Sells was able to keep that terror going. Robert Sells has some talent, and I wish him the best of luck with his next book.

I received a copy of this book from the author in return for an honest review.

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