Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book Review: Static Shock, by Eilis Flynn

Static Shock, by Eilis Flynn
Crescent Moon Press, March, 2012

Can you live without your computer? Can you wear a watch? Do you know anyone who can't?

In a time not long from now, there are people whose life paths are determined by such simple details. Legally recognized as electromagnetics, or "Readers", they are a twist in evolution, an anomaly in a society that has become technologically dependent. Considered second-class citizens because of their heightened electromagnetic fields, Readers can't wear watches, get too close to a TV, or even drive for fear they will shut down the car's electrical system. Computers become worthless doorstops quickly around Readers. Career prospects are limited.

Reader Jeanne Muir decides to expand her horizons when she's unexpectedly offered a new job opportunity. But she hasn't been told that her job description includes being framed for a crime she didn't commit. Because Readers are not held in high esteem, Jeanne's an easy scapegoat, and law enforcement definitely is not on her side. Knowing she was set up and the odds are against her, Jeanne can't let herself be taken in-and risks asking mysterious, sexy Ran Owata, a fellow Reader who is no longer accepted among their kind, for help. The problem is: Can she trust him? Does she have a choice?

Abandoned by her normal parents at age eleven, EM-charged Jeanne Muir spent her teen years between a university research lab and the streets of Seattle. An adult now, she does part-time work for the Geller Institute consulting on energy leaks. Six months ago, she was arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and it earned her an abrupt change in duties. She was remanded to testing (that she dislikes), training (that didn’t interest her the first time around), and boring consulting jobs.

Static Shock opens with Jeanne on two critical missions. First, she must reach her destination without overloading every single thing that runs on an electrical charge. It’s a challenge for her anywhere in urban Seattle, but today, points A and B are on the U of Washington campus. Second, she has to ask something of her boss. She’s optimistic, but there’s a good chance that he will say no. The boss that greets her in the Gellar Institute director’s office, however, isn’t the one she’s expecting. That man, Sam, was peeled off a campus statue a few hours earlier and carted off to a mental institution. The new director is a sexy younger man who puts her on her guard. He’s a reader who doesn’t behave much like one, which tips her off to who he is.

Ran Owata serves as a bridge between readers and normals, but his name has become a dirty word among those like him and Jeanne. Because their EM fields magnify each other in close proximity, readers are prohibited from congregating in groups…a violation of their Constitutional right to assembly that does not escape Jeanne. Ran’s advocation of self-control for integration purposes rubs most readers the wrong way, but that’s the bright side of his problem. He’s also associated with a controversial law that would see readers interred into camps. At the least, he’s viewed by readers as the enemy, at most, the boogeyman. At the thought of his name, Jeanne freaks out, and her EM field blows half of the light bulbs on the director’s floor.

Static Shock has an intriguing premise. The extra-normal condition of Jeanne, Ran, and the other readers is a byproduct of an evolutionary change colliding with a technological society where that this new property of the human condition negatively affects. As such, the readers are ostracized by the other 80% whose lives are built upon the electronic backbone of modern societies’ critical infrastructure. The views of norms, as the readers call them, range from wariness to prejudice to outright fear. Politicians, whether caving to the masses or earning brownie points, have written increasingly restrictive laws inhibiting where they can go, when they can go there, and who they can meet. Other laws have upgraded the wiring in apartment houses to sensate wiring…a technological advancement for which landlords charge their tenants more. Landlords who don’t have it can charge readers a premium that makes renting nearly impossible in one of the America’s most expensive cities. The gloves that readers wear to shield both them and the devices they handle from shock are the new badge of discrimination and segregation…like the Stars of David and colored triangles of Nazi Germany, or racial identifiers throughout history.

The details, great and small of this world makes the not-so-distant-future in Static Shock tangible for the reader. The social issues and concerns are contemporary, relevant, and I very much appreciated the focus given to civil rights. In addition, the author's style is fluid and clean, which allowed me to read the bulk of the story in four hours, and the interaction between Jeanne and Ran was, for the most part, believable and appropriately paced. My problem with the book lies in one particular scene with Jeanne and Ran that I found un-believable. Ran does something that I feel…based upon his behavior to that point…was very much out of character. And Jeanne’s response to it felt out of character as well. After this very short, very odd scene, they find their groove again and the relationship continues exactly as I had expected it to. If the scene had been written slightly differently, or taken out completely, I would have given this book five stars.

Jeanne is enjoyable as a beleaguered smart ass, and Ran is charming as an understated, older, wiser counterpart. Clearing Jeanne’s name of the crime she’s wanted for may be the point of their adventure, but it would be hard not to cheer on bond that forms between them along the way. Static Shock is a solid book that I believe my fellow fans of made-for-SyFy movies will enjoy.