Perhaps the most telling thing about Amped is that it kills its most interesting character in the first chapter. Samantha, a suicidal teenager, throws herself from the top of a building after the Supreme Court rules that “amps”—amplified humans who have used technology to improve themselves physically and mentally—aren’t actually human beings. Samantha was implanted as a child to offset a learning disability that guaranteed she’d never be as smart as her classmates. Now, she’s a beautiful, intelligent, confident teenager—who’s no longer considered human. It’s a familiar Flowers For Algernon conflict (author Daniel H. Wilson even name-checks that book), but there’s more life coming off of Samantha than anybody else in this by-the-numbers tale.
To be fair, Amped is an improvement over Wilson’s previous novel, Robopocalypse, a strained attempt to create the World War Z of the future robot wars. Amped takes a while to settle down from its first section—in which every chapter feels like the launch of a completely different novel somehow featuring the same protagonist—but it eventually becomes a somewhat gripping story of a community of Amps trying to make it in the middle of a prejudiced Oklahoma, where regular humans (or “Reggies”) strike back at anyone with a telltale port on their temple.
Wilson’s plotting isn’t bad—Amped features a half-decent story about a regular guy who becomes a warrior to protect those he loves—but the world-building leaves much to be desired. Why do the Reggies hate the Amps? The generalized envy and anger of “humans don’t like what they don’t understand” aren’t enough of an explanation to justify the sheer lengths to which the Reggies go. The book starts at a simmering boil with that Supreme Court decision, then has nowhere to go. It delays the plot explosion until the final section, which leaves a lot of room for meandering. Wilson piles on clumsy allegories for class warfare, civil-rights struggles, and the Holocaust, but they get mixed up in simplistic psychodrama.
The character development is worse. Wilson teases readers with the prospect that protagonist Owen Gray—who believes his amp is only meant to control his seizures, until his father confesses it’s high-grade military hardware—will reveal untold depths of tactical awesomeness. But when it comes time for the big reveal, Wilson struggles to depict how this makes Owen into a leaner, meaner killing machine. Why does Owen fall in love with only-female-character Lucy? He just does. Why are the bad guys bad guys? They just are. Owen’s arc feels perfunctory, plucked from the pages of a How To Write Popular Novels book.
Yet the tale is propulsive, and Wilson keeps placing intriguing figures on the edges of the book—like Samantha or the Brain, a man who’s augmented himself into a mountain and seems like an intelligent version of the Hulk. Amped wants to be a hero’s saga or a piece of trenchant political science fiction about how we mistreat those who are different. But at its most entertaining, it’s a tale of regular people realizing they have superpowers, thanks to the doohickeys in their heads. Sadly, Amped only realizes this is the story it’s telling about 30 percent of the time.