Change Agent: A Novel, by Daniel Suarez
In some ways this is something of an old-fashioned sci-fi book, which is one of the reason my feelings about it are so mixed. Older science fiction writers were engineers or scientists first and turned to writing as a way to express perceptions about technology and the future. At times their politics or philosophies came out as well but the main interest was technical. There’s a market for this and in comment sections about newer books some readers will still fume about the lack of science or technical accuracy. Meanwhile writers like Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein frequently (especially in their early careers) sketched thin plots and characters to get across the excitement about new technologies. There should, perhaps, be a middle category between science fiction and the more “literary” magical realism. Speculative fiction might serve, with theories about society, politics, and philosophy with less science showmanship.
In Change Agent Suarez takes several side steps to detail many of the technologies introduced, such as retinal projections allowing one or more users to see moving images without anyone else being able to see them. (He doesn’t explain the sound projection but that’s another matter.) He slows down the narrative frequently, which was simply irritating until he decided he needed to explain hydrofoils, which have been around since before I was born, making the detours frustrating at a book-chucking level.
These sidetracks were especially frustrating in a book that had several interesting elements. One of the most interesting themes was an almost Philip K. Dick-like consideration of what it means to be an individual when Kenneth Durand, an agent with Interpol, is injected with a genetic “change agent” which changes enough of his DNA to change his exterior to be identical to Marcus Wyckes, one of the most notorious black market criminals dealing in illegal genetic practices. His face, physique, and fingerprints are all transformed. Wyckes has already left that body behind and is hoping that Durand can be killed, both getting rid of Durand and causing authorities to believe that Wyckes is dead. Durand’s survival and attempts to return to his former self is the main thread of the book.
Suarez also speculates on a world in which parents can choose the attributes of their children that will, hopefully, serve them best in a changing world of work and family. Want an athlete? A mathematical genius? A child who will live long enough to support aging parents? There is a wealth of small genetic changes that can be made at the embryo stage. Changes for adults have been thought impossible until the change agent was developed in military experiments that were abandoned until being taken on by criminal syndicates. Those syndicates have also been experimenting with creating worker drones with low IQ and high loyalty as well as soldiers who will obey without conscience. Another interesting idea is advertising becoming so invasive that it’s difficult to perform any task without interruptions and assaults. We’re nearly there on the Internet. Suarez sees it invading a simple walk down the street.
These are interesting and important ideas. But along with the technical distractions Suarez, who otherwise writes well, serves up two-dimensional characters. There are brief attempts to deepen those characters with some personal history summaries. Suarez can only manage to really flesh out two characters: Durand, whose main moving trait is his dedication to his family and a small person who longs for a genetic treatment to be transformed to a full-sized person. Otherwise characters are mostly there to advance the plot and fill in during what are, admittedly, very good action sequences.
I’m not saying technology is uninteresting. It was what kept me going through the book. Letting that dominate a book without developing interesting characters leaves what could have been a good or great book in the interesting-but-mediocre category.
I listened to the Audible book narrated by Jeff Gurner who gets special mention for truly squirm-worthy oriental accents that would make the directors of Charlie Chan movies uncomfortable.