Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
People love to joke about being addicted to their devices. Yet addiction and dependency, as serious medical issues, have specific definitions. There’s a lot of debate right now about whether one actually develops addictions to the Internet, or to the use of one’s phone—and if so, what do we do about it in a society that not only rewards but often requires the use of these tools? Wired establishes an addiction to such communications and entertainment technology beyond the shadow of a doubt, then it tries to demonstrate the harm that such an addiction can cause. After reading it, I find myself in the position of enjoying Caytlyn Brooke’s storytelling but hating her writing. Thanks to NetGalley and BHC Press for this eARC.
Maggie Stone, along with her roommate, Sarah, and her brother, Andy, attends the launch of the “Vertix H2,” a revolutionary new augmented reality replacement for one’s phone. Tapping directly into the brain stem, the Vertix can pretty much manipulate your mind. Unlike more sinister science fiction novels, however, this isn’t the prelude to an authoritarian power grab. Rather, Maggie finds herself wrapped up in the virtual worlds available through the Vertix. When she’s connected, she is on top of the world. When she is disconnected, she becomes physically sick. As Maggie’s dependency on the Vertix becomes desperate, she struggles to maintain a grip on reality and everything else around her.
Pretty much from page 1, Brooke’s prose proved too purple for my liking. She doesn’t like to pass up any opportunity for an adjective, or even to repeat that adjective later. Maggie’s hair is almost always “auburn,” Sarah’s hips are “curvy hips,” etc. It’s not that Brooke’s writing is bad; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with her style so much as it’s just not for me. If I were her editor, I’d be leaving some stern comments on the manuscript! At first it grated on me, and then I tried to screen it out and dig into the story. I was also worried it was going to prejudice me against the story itself. I worried I was being hypercritical of Brooke’s characterization, of the way Maggie interacts with Sarah and Andy at the Vertix launch, or the way Maggie interacts with Jeremy and, later, Marco. Sometimes, when you find yourself vehemently disliking an author’s style, it’s hard to separate stylistic issues from storytelling issues.
I was also a little confused by Maggie’s employment. She has recently become a full literary agent at a place called Red Leaf Literary, which seems to imply she works for a literary agency. Yet later in the novel, her boss refers to Red Leaf as a “publishing house,” and indeed, a lot of the work featured seems to be closer to what a publisher does—Red Leaf has a marketing department, and Maggie sits in on marketing meetings about cover designs and marketing strategy. She even pitches a cover design of her own for a book. From my admittedly cursory knowledge of the distinction between literary agents and publishers, it seems to me like these aren’t things most agents do. (I know that literary agents’ specific duties vary from agency to agency, but all in all, this just strikes me as weird.) Finally, Brooke keeps portraying Maggie as having time to read manuscripts on the job, whereas it’s my understanding from my Twitter friends in publishing that such a luxury hardly ever manifests in real life!
But I digress.
As Maggie’s life spirals out of her control, the stakes get higher, and Brooke does a fairly good job portraying Maggie’s gradual surrender to her dependency. Again, just as I’m not a literary agent, I’m not an addict or former addict myself, so it’s hard for me to comment on how “accurate” the depiction is—but it certainly tries to go deep. The Maggie at the beginning of the book is very different from the Maggie in the middle or the end, and the transformation is gradual and spiky, with plenty of moments where it feels like if Maggie tried just a little bit harder she might have changed her fate. Of course, that’s the problem with dependency—it isn’t always about willpower.
If anything, I kind of wish Brooke went even further. Here’s an example of what I mean: at one point, there’s a throwaway remark by an observer about how susceptibility to Vertix addiction appears to be genetic. This explains, then, why both Andy and Maggie become addicted but Sarah doesn’t. Yet beyond that one line and these two characters’ addictions themselves, Brooke never really revisits this idea. Indeed, we’re meant to infer that Wired people are a bit of a miniature epidemic, yet we never really get to see the scope of the issue. Even in the epilogue we never get a sense of how much society has been rocked by this new drug.
The ending is also a bit of a letdown. Not the climax or falling action, mind you—those were great. Perhaps my favourite aspect of Wired is the extent to which Brooke has Maggie’s dependency drive her to more and more destructive or self-destructive behaviour. She doesn’t let up, and it’s very moving. Yet Brooke decides to skip the whole recovery part and move right to the redemptive moment. The ending is ambiguously hopeful, leaving us to wonder if Maggie has indeed got her life back on track. (And it appears she is never convicted for murdering Paul—or if she was, perhaps found not responsible, given her mental state, since she only ends up spending a few years in prison—the details are frustratingly vague.) There’s nothing wrong with any of this per se, but it makes the epilogue feel less weighty. A flimsy bit of postscript—if you chopped it off, the novel’s entire tenor suddenly changes.
Science fiction has a long history of exploring addiction and dependency issues through fictional drugs and the technology that enables them. Wired is a kind of calorie-light alternative to heavier cyberpunk fare that isn’t afraid to explore the links between biotechnology and addiction in greater detail. As a result, Wired’s contribution to this legacy is pretty good, but not great. Brooke creates a convincing, detailed, solid portrayal of how one might develop a technological addiction. Yet there is untapped potential here for so much more to this story.