There is a tendency in science fiction to portray science/technology in dichotomy. Good or evil typically the options, a minority of books unpack their technological imaginings in balanced fashion. And this reflects the real world to some degree; most people’s opinion of television seem to fall on the side of either vital for existence or blight on humanity. Few seem to take in its full spectrum in one go—purveyor of the worst trash to groundbreakingly informative, and everything between. Simon Ings a spectrum viewer, his 2014 novel Wolves uses the life of one man as a lens to evolution in augmented reality.
Chopped up into interweaving timelines, Wolves is the story of Conrad. Bi-sexual and confused about it, not to mention the son of a bipolar mother, he clings to shreds of reality and belief throughout a tumultuous childhood. Culminating in a dramatic event in his teenage years, his worldview is only twisted further entering adulthood. His father working with emerging technology that helps veterans who lost all or a portion of their eyesight in war, Conrad comes in contact with virtual and augmented reality at a very early age. Sticking with the medium and getting lucky with a start-up business, in his 20s Conrad becomes a dependable technical lead, successfully advancing his knowledge as the technology surrounding Augmented Reality evolves. As it catches hold on the market and begins to shape people’s environments even bodies, Conrad’s uncertainties only evolve further, and ultimately threaten to overtake him.
For those concerned, Wolves is not a maudlin drama explicitly about the pitfalls of allowing augmented reality too great a place in existence. Comparisons to Ballard will exist as the novel does address the ever larger toehold uncertainty has in our lives due to the increasingly regular changes introduced by evolving technology, not to mention the uncertainties inherent to the human condition and its ability to adapt to situations and conditions regardless of technology. To put this in the book’s terms, Ings simultaneously spins two tales: one features the infiltration and influence of augmented reality into society through the eyes of Conrad, and the other features Conrad’s personal life and the trouble he has gaining a sense of normality facing the ups and downs of existence—family, friendship, relationships, mental health, sexuality, etc. Both tales inexorably progressing equivocally, it makes for a thought-provoking, existentialist narrative.
For those concerned these elements are too dry, Ings maintains plot interest well. Playing off Conrad’s abnormal family life, his rocketing career, and his obtuse attempts at forming meaningful relationships, Ings keeps the pages turning—sometimes even quickly as a couple surprise plot points set the reader’s mind to shock. The non-linear narrative played to advantage, things that normally would have been revealed early in the novel are reserved for a more effectual moment in Ings’, making for a story that can be enjoyed the first reading and more deeply the second given how the pieces fit tighter together.
If it isn’t apparent from the review, Wolves is substantive science fiction as it should be. Technological concerns portrayed through the lens of humanity, in particular the uncertainties surrounding both—personal identity, visualization of reality, relationships, family, careers uplifted and destroyed quickly, direction of society, etc., the novel likewise forms an even keeled read: not too heavy as to put off, and not too light as to forget upon the last page. Neither a dark and light book (the final pages manage to introduce further uncertainty in these terms), it does not portray technology in the brightest of spotlights, but at the same time readily accepts that there is no avoiding its introduction, evolution, implementation, and influence on our lives, and that we shouldn’t forget the remainder of the ambiguous, psychological baggage we individuals bring to the table of society. Highly recommended.