Acts of the Apostles

By John F. X. Sundman

There’s a moment in John F. X. Sundman’s SF techno-thriller Acts of the Apostles that, while unimportant in terms of plot, tells you a lot. The hero, Nick Aubrey, is visiting a friend, Todd Griffith, who has been in a coma for several years. Another friend explains how she has tried everything to bring Todd out of his coma, even playing porn tapes for him. She mentions the adult star Honey Wilder. And, as she puts it, “Honey Wilder Penfield fucks like a devil.”

Nick is too quick not to notice the slip. “Your subconscious betrays you,” he tells his friend. “You said Wilder Penfield.”

Why is this significant? Because, as Nick explains, Wilder Penfield was a neurosurgeon:

“He examined the reaction of patients whose brains had been operated on by inserting electrodes into various parts of their exposed brains, and then using small electrical impulses to stimulate the neuron or neurons to which the electrodes had been attached. He found that stimulation of certain neurons could reliably create specific images or sensations in the patient. These artificially provoked impressions . . . “

Etc. Acts of the Apostles is full of moments like these. It features the opposite of the Hollywood idiot-plot, where nothing can happen unless all of the characters act like idiots. Here they tend to be the Silicon Valley equivalent of Renaissance men. Though advertised as the “ultimate geek novel,” none of them are geeks. For one thing, they are too good-looking. For another, they are universalists. They glide effortlessly from high culture (advanced physics, computer engineering, biology and bioethics) to low (Frank Zappa, comic books, alternative music, pornography). “They talked about California, pinball, bocce ball, Kansas, Hegel, the Beatles, Johnny Holiday, Socrates, pederasty, structural anthropology, de Sade, and the Biodigital Forum.” Nick Aubrey is the complete package: a software entrepreneur with an agriculture degree, a computer whiz and amateur bodybuilder with a “nearly complete” set of Balzac in his suitcase (“because he never knew which volume he would feel like rereading”).

It’s a good thing these uber-men (and women) are on our side. Opposing them is a Bill Gates-type New Economy tycoon with a curiously metaphysical plan for world domination involving the wedding of human biology and computer technology through the use of nanomachines.

The story is hard SF, which means there is a lot of technical detail, but its contemporary relevance, moral dimensions and popular application is easy to grasp. Indeed, as brilliant as it is the novel might have been more effective if less had been explained. The best conspiracy fiction always leaves us a bit in the dark, forcing us to imagine that something even worse is going on.

And this is conspiracy fiction writ large. When the book you’re reading borrows an epigraph from the Unabomber’s manifesto you know you’ve gone through the looking glass. Since technology is the mother of all paranoia in our time, in Sundman’s merging of biology and technology we get a kind of grand Unified Conspiracy Theory – bringing together the AIDS epidemic, Gulf War Syndrome, global finance, and pretty much everything else you might have thought was wrong was the world.

There is something about all of this that is so exuberant and excessive, the minor flaws are a part of the charm. That there is too much here is clear. The weight of exposition, especially when presented through dialogue, occasionally gets in the way of a natural rhythm. The conspiracy isn’t revealed so much as progressively explained. The overload of information even comes out in a stylistic tic Sundman has for describing the route his characters take to get places.

On the other hand, Michael Crichton couldn’t write a book this interesting.

What is unclear is just how seriously Sundman wants us to take it all. Mixed in with some very effective dramatic moments and fascinating speculative digressions are some scenes that are pure camp and others that skirt a thin line with parody (the thought that Gulf War vets might become a new breed of tough-guy in American thrillers scares me). In other words, this is a whale of a first novel, but a bit of a fish story too.

Review first published online November 13, 2002.


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