Tuesday, November 29, 2016

JOIN, debut SF philosophical thriller from Steve Toutonghi, gets big props from me


Soho Press
$13.25 paperback, $9.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: What if you could live multiple lives simultaneously, have constant, perfect companionship, and never die? That’s the promise of Join, a revolutionary technology that allows small groups of minds to unite, forming a single consciousness that experiences the world through multiple bodies. But as two best friends discover, the light of that miracle may be blinding the world to its horrors.

Chance and Leap are jolted out of their professional routines by a terrifying stranger—a remorseless killer who freely manipulates the networks that regulate life in the post-Join world. Their quest for answers—and survival—brings them from the networks and spire communities they’ve known to the scarred heart of an environmentally ravaged North American continent and an underground community of the “ferals” left behind by the rush of technology.

In the storytelling tradition of classic speculative fiction from writers like David Mitchell and Michael Chabon, Join offers a pulse-pounding story that poses the largest possible questions: How long can human life be sustained on our planet in the face of environmental catastrophe? What does it mean to be human, and what happens when humanity takes the next step in its evolution? If the individual mind becomes obsolete, what have we lost and gained, and what is still worth fighting for?


My Review: Well, this is extremely disheartening. My review vanished. I do not know how or why, and this has never happened before on Blogger. I'm going to cry for a while then retype it as best I can. DAMN.

This review appears to be cursed. Two more attempts to re-create it got eaten! I am at a loss to comprehend why. No other review ever has had such a run of bad luck. Annoyingly, this is a book I very much liked and particularly want others to read. So here it goes again:

The premise of this near-future thriller is chilling: Climate change has wrought havoc on the earth, creating a US landscape dominated by megastorms in what was once the world's breadbasket, the Great Plains. Sea levels are enough higher that the West Coast has an Olympic Archipelago in place of Seattle/Tacoma/Olympia. Into this Brave New World steps a Brave New Human, the "join." A discovery in the now-emerging field of quantum networking enables us, the millennia-old single consciousness humans, to share our mental resources with many others in a complete and overwhelming way. The quantum networking of our brains creates a new form of internal reality, a new creature, a different way of being human.

Now think about this: Our brains have trillions, yes 1,000,000,000,000s!, of neurons in each skull. We haven't come *close* to figuring out what is, and how they do, their work. Here comes a quantum means of interconnecting these trillions...trillions!...of neurons and making this titanic expansion of humanity's potential available to the planet and its people.


But au fond we're still human, and that means venal and evil and selfish as well as noble and good and selfless, at the same time and in each private skull. Imagine the magnification of the qualities that make us unique that joining presents.


Chance and Leap are each five-drive joins (a drive is what a joined person becomes) and are friends with a peculiar and, to me, underexplored degree of closeness that solos (single-consciousness people like thee and me, or so I assume since I'm not a join but hey you might be n which case I'd like to be a drive please) simply can't grok. Each has some very serious problems with the drives in the join. Chance Five is a beautiful young man who has terminal cancer, to everyone's surprise. Leap has a very weird join-specific condition that is at the heart of the book. Both run across a join called Rope, a seriously insane entity that joins then murders its own drives. This is, unsurprisingly, a supreme no-no. Even more horrific is Rope's complete willingness to murder other joins' drives, and Chance Three becomes its victim. And this is the warm-up to the real action!

Leap is in a terminal downward spiral that Rope, an illicitly immense join, might know how to fix or know someone who can fix it. Chance agrees to help Leap get to the entity that can make the horror awaiting it either cease or slow down. That is simply amazing to me: A segment of Chance's own join dies in helping Leap and there is nothing like recrimination or anger directed at Leap! I was so impressed that Author Toutonghi made absolutely nothing of this, allowing the reader to come to the realization of the astounding alteration of consciousness that this *one* fact illuminates unaided. That's authorial confidence, well justified by the results.

This story takes place in the world of forty years after the first join. That's not at all a long time to have created so many new and join-specific institutions that Author Toutonghi presents without fanfare or comment. His story simply requires that the reader be exposed to the ideas and actions that make joins different on a quantum level (ha) and the reader is then left to work it all out, make a context for it, build a matrix in which this is simply How It Is. In most SFnal literature there is a degree of explicit world-building that can, and often is, characterized by the dread insult "infodump." Not here. Nothing is dumped out of anything. If information is needed for the reader to move in this world, it is provided in-story. It is not a scaffold erected then bedizened with shiny pretty baubles. It is a skeleton covered with strong flexible muscles.

That's very very high praise indeed, coming from a grouchy jaded old curmudgeon like me.

I will not spoiler the resolution of this tale. I will say that it's breathtaking in its scope and still, in hindsight, inevitable from the story being told. It's not where I *thought* we were going at the outset. How fun is that?

Okay, that all sounds like a five-star warble of rapture. Why didn't I give JOIN five stars? Because of something that's going to be invisible to most of y'all: There is nothing at all in here about the existence of gay and lesbian people, no hint of any serious consideration of sexuality in the joins and the strange but wonderful reorientation (!) of sexual consciousness that was available to Author Toutonghi to explore. It's his novel, I know that so please don't yip at me about it. He gets to tell his own story his own way. But this central fact of human existence, sex and sexuality, is bog-standard straight people stuff and that is a glaring failure of imagination in an otherwise breathtakingly thorough reimagining of all the parameters of humanness. We even touch on the deeply troubling issue of incest in an oblique but still unsettling way. So I feel justified in saying "what the heck, dude," and tsk-tsking at this lacuna.

At any rate, I don't want to put you off reading the book, and so let me say this again: JOIN is a toweringly original and massively creative novel about identity and agency and cannot be overpraised for its fearlessness in addressing the central conundrum any species faces at any juncture in its history: So, what's next?

Buy it, read it, think about it.

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