I typically choose to read novels by established authors. I do this to avoid a tedious vetting process, or–worse–getting half way into a novel which turns out to be terrible. However, a few months back, a fascinating article in the MIT Technology Review lead me to take a chance with RedDevil 4, a science fiction novel by a first-time author.
The article was about Eric Leuthardt, a Washington University neurosurgery professor who specializes in neuroprosthetics, devices which provide a direct interface between a human brain and a computer. To date, neuroprosthetics are used exclusively as a way to control robotic limbs, by patients who have lost muscle function (for example, due to a stroke). Having a device inserted into one’s head is a risky procedure; neuroprosthetics are therefore limited to a small niche of patients who feel that they absolutely need additional movement capabilities.
When one considers potential technological developments that are both feasible and have the potential to fundamentally enhance the scope of human capability, neuroprosthetics seem to be right beneath AI at the top of the list. After all, humans have been the dominant species on Earth because of our mental abilities. It stands to reason that any mental tools, in the same lineage as computers, the abacus, and language itself, are our best hope of solving humanity’s biggest problems. From a more pessimistic perspective, these tools also pose a great danger, due to our propensity to abuse them. Neuroprosthetics are therefore a great topic for science fiction, one which deserves more attention.
In RedDevil 4, Leuthardt imagines a year-2053 Earth in which neuroprosthetics have become as ubiquitous as the internet. A typical neuroprosthetic is connected to the internet. It contains standard management software such as a calendar, an application that allows users to make “phone calls” which establish direct neural communication with one or more neuroprosthetic users, and the ability to ask questions to an AI-enhanced internet search. Naturally, neural communication has a different quality than vocal communication; for example, miscommunication is less common with neural communication, and so it’s commonly understood that neural communication should be preferred to vocal communication in important situations. Opening new channels of communication to the brain, however, also introduces a new vulnerability: the possibility of being “attacked” or infiltrated. At its core, the plot of RedDevil 4 involves an apparent malfunction, in which a hand full of neuroprosthetic owners are transformed into homicidal maniacs; understanding the nature of this malfunction and fixing it is the task of RedDevil 4’s protagonists: a neurosurgeon and a couple of detectives.
The book is interspersed with passages which reveal more surprising neuroprosthetic capabilities. At one point, a woman takes her dog for a walk while having a direct neural connection to the dog. The dog places a target over a fire hydrant in her field of vision, labeled with the word “potty”. Improved human-animal communication is an intriguing possibility, as many animals have may have specialized mental capabilities that surpass those of humans. Imagine a police officer with direct access to the drug-sniffing sensory data of her police dog, or a music producer who works while connected to a tropical bird, leveraging its advanced sound pattern systems.
Leuthardt considers societal as well as personal implications of neuroprosthetics. In RedDevil 4’s 2053, a legal code has evolved to protect the neural privacy of citizens. There is a large group of religious fundamentalists who view neuroprosthetics as unnatural and evil. They view one protagonist, a famous neurosurgeon and neuroprosthetic pioneer (Hmm… I wonder who this character is modeled after.), as an agent of Satan. On the other hand, transhumanists view him as a hero; ever the down-to-Earth scientist, he does not return adoration to the latter group.
As a reader of fiction, I tend to value style at least as much as substance. I prefer my novels poetic, flowing, infused with metaphor and imagery. A novel shouldn’t be a puzzle that I am trying to solve, nor should it be a boring lecture that I force myself to attend in order to learn a lesson. Instead, I want an interesting place to explore, one that’s beautiful and compelling: something that speaks to me on a subconscious, emotional level. I found the first half of the novel particularly strong in this regard. The diverse rotating cast of characters keeps things interesting; some episodes of “sensory teleportation” provide a great medium for style and exploration.
The formula changes quite a bit in the second half, in which the protagonists band together to solve the apparent prosthetic malfunctions. The writing dries up, and the plot degenerates into a series of challenges and obstacles for the protagonists, including both puzzle solving (e.g., examining patients and understanding their neural anomalies), and action (e.g., jumping the pit of spikes). It felt like an action movie, and I hate action movies. But nonetheless, there was just enough intriguing discussion of neuroscience and the societal implications of neuroprosthetics to keep me reading to the end.
Do I recommend it? If you’re a science fiction fan, and in particular one that is curious about neuroprosthetics, then yes. But to a general audience, probably not. It’s pretty good, and I’m glad that I read it, but it’s not that good. If its second half had been as lush as the first half, I surely would have given RedDevil 4 a stronger recommendation. Leuthardt has written another novel, called Limbo, after writing RedDevil 4; I may read it some day, but it’s not going to be the next novel I read. In any case, I’m glad that Leuthardt is still writing, and I hope he keeps it up.