TPG’s Tasters – Second Chance, by Dylan S Hearn (pt 2/2)
Over on yesterday’s post, I began to look at Second Chance, by Dylan S Hearn. The book had a compentent cover as well as a decent blurb and opening paragraph, with left me optimistic as to what was follow. Was that optimism correct? Let’s find out…
The First Chapter
Unsurprisingly given the blurb, the storm from last time turns out to be a consequence of climate change. This is elaborated on for exactly one paragraph; afterwards, we move to the meat of the scene.
Maria is a scientist who works on the recording of peoples’ brain activity. She has one colleague, name josh, who is currently viewing a richly detailed example:
She watched as he expertly manipulated the neural recording, diving into the three dimensional model, heading towards the brain stem before spinning back. Neural activity ebbed and flowed across the twin hemispheres of the brain. From this viewpoint it was similar to ghost lights shimmering across the artic sky.
Josh, we soon learn, actually has two sets of recordings: one of a real person, one from a simulation, both identical. Maria is initially annoyed over him using the simulator without permission, but quickly calms:
She regretted snapping at him as soon as she had spoken… the neural simulator was her baby – but she also knew that Josh had no comprehension of why he would need to ask her without permission. There were some things he just didn’t understand.
Honestly, I like this detail: this is the kind of thing that starts to make a character feel more like a person and less like a plot device. On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if/when we’ll be told anything on what these characters actually look like: thus far, we’ve been given nothing on their appearances or gestures, which leaves no way to really picture them.
Josh shows a recording taken with older scanners and explains that the simulator can no longer match it. He then looks at the recording again with the newer scanners (…eh?), at which point the “synthetic brain matches the biological one.”
Now, to be honest, I’m finding this a bit tough to swallow right now. I can easily imagine someone creating a realistic virtual brain someday, sure; what I CAN’T imagine is that brain’s activity matching up exactly with a recorded one, which seems to be the case here. The scene actually seems to acknowledge this early on (“…each brain had its own vocabulary, related but separate from one another, as unique as a snowflake”), which adds to my confusion further. Josh mentions feeding data into the simulator before starting it (presumably to attempt to match the simulated brain with their test subject), but it’s all very vague.
Maria is pleased: at long last, her treasured neural simulator appears to be working! She turns away, but:
…Josh grabbed her arm, pulling her back. “Wait, I haven’t finished”, he said…“This is what I wanted you to see.”
Josh drops his bombshell: one of the recordings was of someone who died of a stroke in the middle of the experiment. The simulator, “not affected by biological weaknesses” as Josh puts it, continued to run. Josh is excited by this, but Maria sees nothing out of the ordinary and…
…wait a minute…
Someone died in their lab? Why don’t either of them seem the least bit affected by this? To be fair, for Josh this can easily be argued to be in-character, but Maria…well, we haven’t seen much of her, but I’d have thought it would register.
Moving on from that, Josh explains his excitement:
“But it isn’t just matching the odd pattern…The neural simulator is matching activity seen in the original but never seen as part of the data transfer….I don’t think it’s a simulation any more. I think we’ve brought the subject back to life.”
If it wasn’t a simulation, wouldn’t the activity now be slightly different than the original brain? This virtual, fully thinking brain is (presumably) completely deprived of any and all stimuli and (also presumably) has no idea how it got into such a state. If I was that brain I would be bloody terrified, and the computer readings would (again, presumably) show it.
So far, I’m…not really sure what to think. The scene seems rather slow-paced despite being fairly short, and the lack of clues regarding the two characters makes it difficult to get fully invested. On the other hand, the writing itself seems solid thus far and I’m honestly interested to see what Josh’s discovery ends up meaning for the wider world.
So with that said, how does the remainder of the extract hold up? Let’s see…
Chapter 1 introduces us to Stephanie Vaughn, who if the blurb is to be believed is the story’s central protagonist. Unlike in the prologue, we are quickly given some clues about her:
…Her cheeks ached from smiling. What a day. What a crazy, unbelievable day. Still, now she could relax. And have a drink. She really needed a drink.
Already, I feel more invested than I did in the prologue. This is followed by a paragraph on the club she is currently relaxing in, which serves to introduce a bit of the setting:
The air in the club was hazy, the tell-tale aroma of narcosmoke permeating everything…The dance floor was a mixture of the beautiful and the banal…Gasps erupted as imagery exploded onto the [sic] their datalenses.
Mistake notwithstanding, I seriously like the “datalenses” line: without being told anything else, we can immediately draw some tentative observations of this book’s world. A find example of unobtrusive worldbuilding.
After this, though, the scene unravels a tad. We are introduced to Addy, a friend (or perhaps more) of Stephanie’s, whose idea it was to come to this club:
Nobody had wanted to jinx the campaign by pre-arranging a victory celebration, so once the results had been announced they had been at the mercy of Addy or James…she, as usual, had been irrepressible.
Addy and James (who is first mentioned here) go off to dance, while Stephanie sits with Sian – another friend to relax and watch. Much dialogue follows, in which Sian infodumps a load of backstory: long story short, Stephanie is an independent political candidate who has just displaced a member of the ruling party in an election. A lot of the dialogue here is uncredited and/or oddly paragraphed, which makes it harder to read than it ought to be.
Towards the end, Stephanie is approached and congratulated personally by one Delegate Gant. Gant’s congratulations appears genuine enough, but he also makes clear that the “Prime Delegate” is angry over what has happened; subsequently, he is revealed (by Sian, natural) to be “the Prime Delegate’s top enforcer”. An antagonist, perhaps? Guess we’ll see.
Current thoughts: Still seems interesting, but also still seems very slow. Plus, the continuing lack of any firm physical description is starting to annoy me. Can’t see myself buying this right now…
Chapter 2 introduces us to a new character: Randall, who is described in the chapter header as a “Data Cleanser”. Hung over after a night’s clubbing, he puts on his datalenses (remember those) and calls up the news:
“Filter: Remove “celebrity”, “sports”, “gossip”, “scandal”, Date range: 24 hours. Sources: Political neutral. Scope: National, International.”
I’m really starting to like the imagined world here, I must say: very sci-fi-y in certain respects, but still down to Earth and (mostly) plausible.
Randall switches to local news, leading him to find a story on an upcoming launch by the so-named “Re-Life Corporation” – sounds like Josh’s and Maria’s work hasn’t gone to waste after all. He calls his boss to warn of a probable leak – a Re-Life Employee, then – before starting on his day’s work.
And his work was something I very much enjoyed reading about. Essentially, Randall is a censor, working at blocking or countering unwanted “datasphere” material as needed. Several paragraphs are devoted here to Randall’s working and thought processes, and none of them feel wasted.
After that, the scene switches gears somewhat and spends much time on a conversation between Randall and a co-worker named Lise, who is having trouble with organising her upcoming wedding. I don’t have much to say on this, really: it’s a bit long, perhaps, but it does do a good job of rounding off Randall some more. Next up, chapter 3
Current thoughts: starting to get more interested, now. I want to read about Randall far more than I do Stephanie; not sure if that was intended, but hey. Still seems slow, though; not sure if this’ll be my thing…
Chapter 3 introduces another main character: Nico, who is quickly established to be some kind of crime investigator. His last case, it seems, didn’t go very well – something that has him profoundly worried – and he is now once again on the way to his office. He takes a while to get there, with more world details slipped in over the course of his journey:
In the Outside World…The benches were full, people gazing into space…Nico thought back to when the trend for outdoor working had started…Park robberies had formed the bulk of his early cases…Of course, all that changed when increased surveillance.
Again, this is all good stuff in my opinion. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the worldbuilding is the best aspect of this book so far. Sadly, this is followed by a…rather confusing explanation of his present circumstances:
The seniors had rightly gone ballistic. Crime Agencies make money through their reputations…the Legislature wouldn’t pay for an unsolved crime and his last case had been well and truly solvable.
I’m assuming that should read “unsolvable” at the end, here. Admittedly, I can think of ways “solvable” would work – say, if a rival agency solved it instead – but if it’s not a mistake then it’s very poorly explained. I imagine I’m sounding pedantic, but this really broke my immersion – and right when I was getting properly into it, too.
Nico is called to see his boss, Deepak Chowdhury, on the top floor of his agency’s building. Another couple of strange sentences follow:
Nico nodded a greeting, he had known the man for years – I’m 99.9% sure that isn’t right; if I’m wrong, feel free to correct me down below.
Chowdhury continued to stare out the window – this being the first time the window or him staring out of it is mentioned. I actually went back to check afterwards; another immersion-breaker, in other words.
A brief aside follows in which Chowdhury discusses his childhood memories of being on an airship, brought on by the view at the window; afterwards, the two men get down to business. Despite Nico’s fears, it seems Chowdhury has no intention to fire him; on the contrary, there’s a fresh case that seems right up Nico’s ally. A research student named Jennica Fabien has gone missing in mysterious circumstances, and a prompt closure of the case would good in terms of both money and PR for the agency.
Of course, seeing as the agency is in fact a private company, there are added complications:
“Use whatever resources you see fit but I don’t want you burning the profit margins on this. Where possible, do the bulk of the data work yourself.”
Soon after, the chapter ends with Chowdhury returning to stare forlornly out of his window. This leads to one last paragraph of Nico musing on the merits of having wealth and power in the place of company, which admittedly felt a little out of place to me.
Regardless: if this had been the opening chapter then I’d have probably been a lot more pumped for the story to follow. There’s tension here, both in the run-up to receiving the case and in the case itself. Nico seems like a good person despite the money-orientated world he lives in. More importantly, every major character here actually seems like a person – more than can be said for Stephanie’s crew in the first chapter
Current thoughts: now, things seem to be speeding up a touch. Nico seems like an easy character to get behind; would indeed like to read more of him. Hmm…
There are in fact two more chapters in the preview, but this post already seems long enough as it is. So, real quick: Chapter 4 introduces the mysterious “Re-Life Technician”, who seems to have a massive god complex and who I guess will develop into one of the villains. Chapter 5 returns to Stephanie’s point of view, though it gets cut off long before its end and so I won’t comment on it here.
I really like several of the ideas here, but I must admit to being unconvinced by the execution. In particular, it seems very slow-paced (not necessarily bad, but certainly not to my taste) and there were various niggling little issues that kept me from becoming fully engaged. It seemed to be getting quicker by the end, but given how bloated my reading list is already…
Did I buy it?
Not now, but I’m not discounting this book entirely just yet. It could still easily develop into something great, if/when my backlog goes down I’ll perhaps reconsider.
If anyone has any constructive criticism on my chosen format and/or execution, I’d be very grateful to hear it. I’d also be grateful if you could nominate any future books for me to go through. Given how long this post turned out, I’m thinking I’ll do the opening chapter in the first of the two posts in the future; other than that, I think I’ll stick to the present format unless anyone tells me differently 🙂
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