Embarrassing confession time: from time to time people have sent me books to read in my spare time and I accept them, despite knowing I never get around to reading books in my spare time because I try hard never to have spare time. NEVER. I have had a e‑copy of A Digital Divide long enough to misplace it (I bought a new copy, along with a couple of other Spangler books) and I never got around to reading it because I am a terrible person.
Spangler is probably best known for A Girl and Her Fed, which shares a universe with this novel. As it happens, I’ve never read A Girl and her Fed so any elements that would leap out at a fan of that strip were missed by me.
My impression is the author was concerned the memespace for her book would be filled by the doomed Fox show Almost Human, which to be honest I thought was going to be the inferior Yank rip-off of Äkta människor but which seems to have been closer to the inferior rip-off of Holmes & Yoyo played straight. In any case, the doomed Fox show Almost Human is both dead in the water and also not much like Digital Divide at all. For one thing, I’d actually recommend Digital Divide.
Rachel Peng is an Office of Adaptive and Complementary Enhancement Technologies Agent, one of the lucky few who gained abilities beyond those of mundane humans thanks to a very high tech implant and the only cost was half a decade of having her mind and identity ripped apart thanks to some misleadingly documented features of the implant.
Having duct-taped her mind back together with the help of her fellow agents, Peng works as the OACET liaison to the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police, a job that earns her the same kind of unquestioning trust and boundless gratitude from the police and the public as any mutant in The Uncanny X‑Men ever got.
Part of the public relations problem the Agents have is that the abilities they have admitted to are disturbing and many of the ones that they have not yet mentioned are even worse; Peng’s senses allow her to violate the Fourth Amendment at will, and arguably the Fifth as well. It’s easy to see the Agents as monsters, which is why to date they have been careful to keep the less well socialized victims of the implant carefully sequestered from public sight. Their caution and their efforts to be seen helping the public has not stopped them from being publicly vilified by ambitious Judge Edwards.
The book opens with the brutal murder of Maria Griffin, throat slit while in a locked room seemingly empty save for Griffin herself. Called in to consult, Peng is able to work out how the murder was committed but not why. Links to other, less crimes turn up and point to a disturbing pattern of escalation. Worse, at from the Agents’ point of view, is that the crimes are designed to cast suspicion on the Agents themselves. Edwards may be an enemy but it is clear he is not the Agents only enemy and not nearly the most dangerous.
What tossed me out of this the first time I tried to read it last year (aside from having work to do) was my inexplicable inability to accept that the implants could confer the abilities they do, even though the abilities are much much less ludicrous than the ones in Toaru Kagaku no Railgun, which I watch without any problem at all. This time round, it was mainly the remote projection ability I had to skim past without trying to think about how an implant in someone head
allowed an Agent to create a digitalized visual image and position it in a location of their choosing. Imagination was the only limitation on how these images appeared, or moved, or could be put to practical use.
I have a rule for procedurals I call the McCallum Rule, after the dismal TV series of that name, which is that the crimes investigated should not turn out to be intimately connected to the investigators themselves (Scotland would have avoided many brutal murders if they had simply detained everyone McCallum ever knew). This book violates the McCallum Rule, although I still enjoyed the novel. Peng and the other Agents are very much the point of the plot as well as the ones trying to unravel it. Since I still enjoyed the book, clearly this should not be read as a procedural but as a thriller.
Digital Divide also features a super-genius criminal antagonist, something I have not been keen on since the heyday of the Deaf Man, and a plot twist I won’t go into except to say it’s been featured in a lot of movies recently and I’d like never to see it again, ever. If I had only read this book when I first got it, I would have read that bit before the sea of movies using the same twist so this is all my own fault for my lack of diligence.
The part of the book that most caught my attention was a carefully contrived ticking time bomb scenario, where saving the lives of many innocents appears to be dependent on abandoning some basic points of law. The resolution to the dilemma is quite interesting, particularly given that the protagonist is a cop and the author American1, and not one I was expecting.
Although the author has extensive experience writing, this first novel felt a lot like a first novel to me; I guess the transition from web comics to novels is as large a jump as the one from short stories to novels. None of my issues were ones that practice could not address and I am looking forward to reading the sequel.
1: I would like to assure readers that despite some unamerican tendencies with respect to civil liberties, Peng is no endlessly blubbing Swede cop moaning just because they had to put a few rounds into a perfectly expendable suspect: Peng does take some professional pride in cathartically non-fatally partially dismembering a fleeing perpetrator, as is only proper.