Speculative Fiction. Art. The In-between.

Novel Review: The God Wave (Book 1 of The God Wave Trilogy)

The God Wave

by Patrick Hemstreet. Harper Voyager: New York, 2016. Science fiction technothriller.

     "Chuck Brenton briefly contemplated the possibility that the course of experimentation they were pursuing might be pouring gasoline on neurological flames . . . and it worried him."

The God Wave

The God Wave

Overall: 3/5 stars*

     Patrick Hemstreet’s debut novel The God Wave, the first of a trilogy, makes use of a timeless science fictional formula: exploring the potentials of new technology. Technology often opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for the advancement of society such as space travel and teleportation, but Hemstreet goes down a different route. This novel explores how we can physically be altered by technology—and we are not talking about cyberpunk enhancements or bio-organic add-ons, but rather the ways that technology can enable us to explore our potential. The ways that machines can bring out all that humans can be.
     The reader follows a group of characters as they slowly become intertwined with a technology developed by our main characters Dr. Chuck Brenton, a neuroscientist working at John Hopkins University, and Dr. Matt Streegman, a mathematician and programmer working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
     They work together to develop what appears to be a form of telekinesis. This idea, portrayed from a neurological stand point, pushes the whole idea of mind control further away from something magical and takes the staunch impossibility out of it. This is an example of pure speculative fiction, taking already established concepts within our own world—the fields of neurology and robotics—and painting an almost tangible picture of the potential future harmony of the human brain and the robotic core. The physical laws are always manipulated in science fiction to suit the novum, but with Hemtreet’s novel it feels like they only had to be tweaked very slightly to allow this experiment to flourish.
     Hemstreet communicates these ideas to us in the simple ‘to the point’ language found in many classic science fiction novels, vaguely reminiscent of James Blish and Kurt Vonnegut. People get together in this novel in a sentence and the relationships fade into the background for the rest of the story. This strictness is balanced with some light humour in the form of some ‘geek’ references—not surprising when we think about who the characters are, as scientists/engineers are often viewed as the pinnacle of nerd-hood. Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, and The Matrix are all used to add some comedic elements, as well as strengthening the notion that this world is very close to our own. But it becomes clear quite early on that the real driving force is the idea, which takes precedent over any attempts to flounce around with the English language. These nods at the audience feel odd in this clinical, precise novel.
     What is at once both interesting and disappointing is that the first third of the novel is dedicated to the experimental stage of the technology. The problem arises when the experiment becomes the narrative itself. What I mean by this is not that the discourse or structure is experimental, but that it reflects the ‘act’ of scientific experiment. Experiments, if done properly and accurately, take time. They are grueling, repetitive, precise. They leave no scrap of data that may be of importance out. Hemstreet demonstrates this in his narrative method. Nearly every element of the progression is documented, as though the first half is pure prelude, prompting the reader to remain patient for the end result. But is the conclusion enough of a reason to spend hours on the beginning and the middle? It could be argued that this may have been more interesting as a memoir, with Chuck reflecting on his decisions in the first person.
     Chuck is certainly an endearing character, the symbol of morality who both creates the technology and desires to use it for good. But before we know Chuck, we know his idea, having his Eureka moment in the first few pages. Having a first person account of his thoughts would have been illuminating. In contrast with the likable Chuck, we have Matt who is the antagonist (at first). The narrator places particular emphasis on Matt’s feelings about Chuck—which are most of the time a mixture irritation and disdain. This naturally invites the reader to be on Chuck’s side and I for one felt annoyed that he was snubbed by Matt so often. Every eye roll and snide comment served to further my dislike for this character and there is a sense early on that Matt will become an obstacle for Chuck.
     These two provide a polarity that keeps the tension going, the reader wondering whether Chuck’s higher moral and ethical standard will prevail over Matt’s desire to take the fastest route towards success, despite the moral implications. Chuck is also quick to ask questions and brings to our attention the idea of government surveillance, particularly in the academic environment. It is also worth noting that Hemstreet does give us many more than these two voices to guide the reader through the experiment: Lanfen’s experiences with Bilbo the bot are fun to experience, as are the descriptions of Mini’s artistic pursuits. 
     However, the predominant interactions we focus on are the ones between metal and mind. We rarely see the other characters outside of the confines of the experimental/work environment in the first half of the novel. We know them only as colleagues at first and when we do glimpse them, it’s still all about their work. And rightly so in many instances, with the government lurking in every corner, making sure they don’t expose this new potential power to outsiders.
     The novel peaks at around two thirds of the way in, when things start to get eerie. Hemstreet introduces an atmosphere of paranoia, inviting the reader into an intrigue of spying, surveillance, and mystery surrounding Chuck and Matt’s highly secretive contractors. Hemstreet effectively conveys a sense of anxiety, but unfortunately not for too long. It doesn’t take much time for our highly intelligent characters to figure things out. And yet, despite all of these intellects at work, it still descends into chaos with the eventual ‘boss fight.’ 
     Anyone who is familiar with the critical history of science fiction will know that the plot over character critique is an old argument, often directed at the pulps of the past reserved. There is a very good reason we moved away from action over substance and became the genre we have today: arguably the most diverse and subversive, the most speculative and the most challenging. It’s a cliched argument for a reason. Our standards are high these days, we desire to see our characters outside of the laboratory. Looking at the novel as a whole, it’s far from it.
     Coming towards the end, its position as the prelude to a series becomes much more apparent, resolving the initial obstacles whilst opening up a new direction for the protagonist. The ending suggests as much when we view the last scene of the novel.
     The God Wave came extremely close to keeping me interested right until the end, but I very much doubt I will pick up the sequel. All in all, it became too predictable for me. Whenever a new power comes into the world there are those that seek to control it for themselves, or manipulate it. The experiment played out just as Hemstreet expected, dropping an idea on to a fictional world and watching the ripples turn into waves.


Editor's Note:
We're using a five-star rating system for now and while readers should be familiar and comfortable with this format, as a reminder:
1 – Unacceptable. A very negative experience
2 – Mediocre. Some serious structural issues
3 – Neutral to positive review. May suit a specific audience
4 – Positive review, a must-read for genre fans
5 – Highly recommended, a must-read for everyone

We believe this will help readers to discover books that suit their tastes and preferences.