Sunday, September 20, 2020

Girl Gone Viral, by Arvin Ahmadi

Opal Hopper is a senior at an elite computer science-centered high school in Palo Alto.  But her life, like that of most young people, centers around WAVE, a world-wide virtual reality platform, created by Palo Alto Labs (which also happens to bankroll her school).  Her presence in VR takes on a new meaning when she and her friends hack into PAL's data stream and start crunching through users' biometric monitoring (data that PAL has taken from users on WAVE).  Realizing how much power resides in such personal data, they turn that data around back on the users.  The epiphany that this unleashes on WAVE causes Opal and her channel to go viral, launching them into an elite world with millions of followers.  It also brings them to the attention of the greedy and the powerful, from the wealth of venture capitalists to the subversive political wrath of the emerging Luddites.

Opal, however, is not interested in influence and power.  She wants answers.  Seven years ago, her father, a brilliant computer scientist, went missing.  And no one will tell her the truth about his disappearance.  But one of the last people to see him was Howie Mendelsohn, the founder of PAL.  Mendelsohn is a hermit and won't meet with just anyone, but if Opal becomes the biggest thing on WAVE, there is no way that she'll be refused an audience.

Original and innovative, the book is tricky and tedious to read but rewards the effort with striking observations about technology.  I found myself alternately annoyed by the technological gibberish that fills Ahmadi's prose and astounded by his insights on tech.  With the reactionary "Luddites" serving as a surrogate from Trumpism, Ahmadi sends us into a deep exploration of how tech brings us both a better society and simultaneously weakens us for a populist backlash.  For Opal and her peers, there is no reasonable alternative than to move forward into a world of virtual reality, but her elders (and many readers) will achingly find themselves hanging on to some elements of the Luddite manifesto.  It's very subversive and the ideas raised will stick with you a long long time.

Good ideas do not however an excellent novel make.  Ahmadi is trying to be clever and he's also trying to describe a world that does not have a physical existence and which does not behave in the way we expect it to.  And, while it is easy to get swept away by the magic, he also has a human story (the final human touch, as he'll put it later, that must always be in charge) to tell.  That's a lot to bite off and it makes the book hard to create and (wherever he falls down) hard to digest.  There are numerous places where the story doesn't track, where action scenes and/or dialog make no sense, and where the logic of the story simply collapses.  In many ways, that is part of the experience, but for readers like me that search for human connections and human truths (and are more than a bit Luddite!) this isn't a story we enjoy.  The end result is a mediocre novel with terribly important things to say about the future.

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