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Monday, November 19, 2012

Insignia by S.J. Kincaid

Release Date: July 10, 2012
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Age Group: Young Adult
Format: E-book
Source: Purchased
Pages: 444
Buy: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound
Description: Goodreads
More than anything, Tom Raines wants to be important, though his shadowy life is anything but that. For years, Tom's drifted from casino to casino with his unlucky gambler of a dad, gaming for their survival. Keeping a roof over their heads depends on a careful combination of skill, luck, con artistry, and staying invisible.

Then one day, Tom stops being invisible. Someone's been watching his virtual-reality prowess, and he's offered the incredible--a place at the Pentagonal Spire, an elite military academy. There, Tom's instincts for combat will be put to the test and if he passes, he'll become a member of the Intrasolar Forces, helping to lead his country to victory in World War III. Finally, he'll be someone important: a superhuman war machine with the tech skills that every virtual-reality warrior dreams of. Life at the Spire holds everything that Tom's always wanted--friends, the possibility of a girlfriend, and a life where his every action matters--but what will it cost him?

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the very first installment of What Should Wes Read.  You all (fine, y’all) decided that I should read Insignia by S.J. Kincaid. I’m assuming you chose it because I’m a sci-fi nerd and a combination of Ender’s Game and The Matrix should be a wet dream come true. Despite a plot that comes together better than expected and some quite enjoyable characters, Insignia didn’t quite reach that level for me due to its inability to get me to buy into its premise.

Probably the biggest challenge when writing sci-fi is getting the audience to accept the outlandish premise. Sadly, I had a hard time accepting the premise of the novel. I think the issue was twofold. First, I know too much about technology for some of her ideas to play. For instance, one of the plot points deals with some IP addresses, but the whole conflict would have been avoided if the military just used DHCP instead of static assignment, not to mention the stupidity of the military using publicly accessible IP addresses for classified assets. Also, the idea of coding up viruses in minutes and flinging them around like spells in a Harry Potter novel just seems silly to me, especially the weird insistence that people be physically near each other when sending viruses over a network. The second reason I couldn’t get behind the technology is that it’s over explained, which is just begging the computer nerd in me to poke holes in it. A favorite example is the suggestion that there’s a storage medium of some sort that comes with the neural processor, which makes me wonder what happens when those NAND cells reach their write limit. On the plus side, the author seems to actually know what the uses and the limits of a firewall are, which is frustratingly rare.

The depiction of the war didn’t do much for me, either. The characters seem convinced that they have evolved beyond “conventional” war because wars are no longer fought on earth. That I was left a bit confused as to the nature of the conflict is probably not a good sign, but at best I could tell, one of two things is true. First, the countries could be warring over the actual location of resources on other planets. In this case, the conflict makes sense, but negates the idea that humans have moved beyond conventional war: It’s still a war fought over territory, just not Earth territory. The other possibility is that the countries are just fighting out in space until there’s a victor, which makes it a horribly pointless war with no cost and no incentive to ever end the war. Granted, there’s some interesting 1984-ish suggestion in that possibility, but I still don’t think I can get behind a war that doesn’t seem to have consequence. I believe the first is the intended interpretation and I have a sneaking suspicion that I missed something, but it’s a problem that I can finish the book and not have a decent understanding of the stakes of the overall story.

The existence of the Pentagonal Spire is probably the worst part about this “casualty-less” war. I find it impossible to believe that any military would place all of its resources in one single location on an apparent gentleman’s agreement to not kill each other. I couldn’t help but thinking that China should just nuke the Spire and take the definitive victory. I can’t believe that any military that had a guaranteed path to instant victory would pass it up just because...well I’m not sure why, which is the whole problem. At least this annoyance does become a plot point near the end of the book, but  by that point I was just glad that not everyone was as clueless as they seemed.

I found the characters to be mostly enjoyable. Unfortunately, the character I found least compelling was the main character. Tom’s reaction to everything seemed to be either to hit it, to want to hit it, or try and fail to hit it. His anger is even more disturbing when you remember he’s fourteen and actively feels like killing more than one of his superiors over the course of the novel. Luckily, his supporting cast is quite endearing, particularly the awkward Wyatt Enslow and her boyfriend, Yuri. Despite my dislike for Tom, the book does manage to depict some enjoyable and believable relationships. The relationships between Tom and his father and Tom and Elliott Ramirez were especially well done and the author makes a very smart choice in making the climax turn on an interpersonal relationship rather than magic tech or fake-out tactics.

I don’t mean to rag too much on the novel. In the end, all of the disparate plot threads came together surprisingly well and, as I said, I found most of the characters fun to spend time with. Putting together a decent plot and some good relationships is half of the battle and makes me think that this series has potential if it ever provides me with some interesting stakes. There are a lot of fun ideas in this novel (I would pay good money for a Predator vs. Terminator movie) and I think that any sequels would be well served by playing around in the possibilities the author has created rather than her trying to convince me that all of the internal logic checks out. It never does with sci-fi and the best sci-fi tends to be the kind that relegates the “sci-fi” closer to fantasy (stealing that idea shamelessly from Rian Johnson), asking us to just accept the lie that the time travel exists or we all live in a computer and move forward. The technology shouldn’t be an end in and of itself, but a means to a thematic end. The ending of Insignia provides a glimpse of what the series could be if it started following that rule and I’d be very interested in seeing where it goes it if does.

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