Just last year, Microsoft announced success at experiments with using DNA for storage, and just this past month, a group of researchers stored an operating system in DNA at a density of 215 PB/g. (It’s hard to put that into context, but you could store the entire book collection of the American Library of Congress thousands of times over in that single gram, not to mention a copy of your own genome.) I’ve kept my eye on this interesting avenue of information storage ever since I read The Dervish House, wherein this scheme forms a central plot element.
In Hello World, Tiffany Rose and Alexandra Tauber have taken this idea and expanded upon it. The corporation UltSyn employs humans as “Human Information Drives” or HIDs by rendering them mute, erasing their memories, and then writing sensitive corporate data to their brains in place of those memories. Got some incriminating files you can’t destroy but don’t want falling in the wrong hands? No problem: UltSyn will, for a hefty price, write them to a human brain for you and then keep that human safe and secure until you need the data back. So we have something that’s part–Dervish House and part–Johnny Mnemonic.
Scott is a hackitivist looking for his sister, whom he believes has become an HID. To this end, he is using his hacker powers to create as much chaos for UltSyn as possible. The book opens with Scott ambushing an UltSyn car to kidnap an HID. In the process, he shoots and kills several people. As the story goes on, Scott and Sonia, the HID, develop a bond. Communicating through sign language, Scott and Sonia agree to go after UltSyn together, to find Scott’s sister and find information on Sonia’s life from before she agreed to be a hard drive. The trouble, of course, is that when you go digging, you have to be prepared that you might not like what you find….
That opening scene surprised me and stuck with me for the entire book. While no action hero, Scott is somewhat more physical than your stereotypical hacker. I can’t say I liked him all that much (and it isn’t just the gun violence). But that might be more of the situations we see Scott in than Scott himself. Like many thrillers that take place over a short period of time, Hello World jolts from one high-adrenaline sequence to another, with little enough time in between for breathers. When Scott and Sonia aren’t criss-crossing Europe to infiltrate UltSyn compounds, Scott’s back at his batcave, doing something clever with hardware and software and the help of his AI, Hallie. I do love Rose and Tauber’s careful descriptions of Scott’s actions rather than hand-waving “he hacked the thing” type of actions. There’s a certain level of practicality to the narration that grounds what could otherwise easily become a Jason Bourne–style near-future SF thriller that drifts ever further away from our reality.
Sonia, who gets a few POV chapters, is just as sympathetic and probably more likeable. Initially I didn’t like her passive role, even if it made sense as part of the story, so I was happy to see her grow and get more to do, even saving Scott a few times. Her character shows more visible change over the course of the book, which is perhaps why she satisfies me more than Scott. While ending kind of reminded me of Chuck (and is just about as weird or creepy) I think it’s an appropriate kind of price to extract from the two of them in exchange for their overall success. The thing about a relationship, be it sexual or platonic or romantic or some mix of the three, is that it is seldom a cut-and-dried “yes” or “no” kind of thing. Relationships are complicated and messy business involving two or more people, which means so many variables and potentially mixed messages. As a result of this complexity, Hello World subverts, just barely, the typical “Hero rescues Very Special Girl Who is Totally a MacGuffin” trope of this thriller subgenre.
Alas, Hello World doesn’t quite invite me to become immersed into its strange dystopian world in the same way that Gibson pulls one into the Sprawl. This book has more the dimensionality of a play, in that the scenes feel like sets on a stage: the immediate action is visible, but you know that just behind the plywood wall there’s an entire backstage devoted to making the production look good. Scott’s immediate motivation to take down UltSyn and rescue his sister is all well and good, as are the various minor characters he encounters along the way. But I don’t get much sense of the wider world in this story. UltSyn is the generic evil corporation with evil, capitalist motives that hires generic black ops mercenaries to secure its generic facilities of doom. Scott’s friends with a bunch of hacktivists who want to take down these corporations, etc. These are all very familiar ideas here, and while their themes certainly appeal, there is little in the way of memorable description or worldbuilding.
Rose and Tauber kick around a few interesting ideas that I wish had more page time. The HIDs themselves are so fascinating, and I wish there had been more exploration of the intersections between losing memories and losing humanity. Similarly, Scott discovers or deduces some secrets about UltSyn’s ultimate management structure that, while not really original, are fascinating to think about—but they come up fairly late in the book and are sort of put aside in favour of resolving the action.
I guess Hello World ended up being heavier on the “thriller” than the “science fiction” part of “science fiction thriller” and that balance is always a shaky proposition at best for me. I picked this up because of its touted asexual protagonist, as I had been following/chatting with Rose on Twitter. Indeed, if like me you’re looking to read more books with representations of marginalized identities, then this isn’t a poor choice. Scott’s sexual and romantic identity is a complex and layered thing, with great emphasis placed on distinguishing between one’s identity/attraction and one’s choices/actions. I appreciate the care with which Rose and Tauber craft both the actions and the conversations in this respect, particularly around consent. This is the kind of thing that should be in every book, and it’s great to see on the page here.
Hello World has a cool factor to it, with smooth writing and well-rounded protagonists. When I’m reading about hackers and dramatic computer stuff, I want the kind of writing that I got here, with great descriptions and a kind of slick awareness of the speed and style with which hackers pull off their exploits. On the other hand, the story and world are less my cup of tea.