Nova's 'Wetware': constant surprise

January 13, 2002|By Ken Tucker | By Ken Tucker,Special to the Sun

Wetware, by Craig Nova. Shaye Areheart Books. 339 pages. $22.

Craig Nova's new novel is set in an America a quarter-century hence, when human bodies without the full complement of human emotions -- "wetware" in sci-slang -- are created by high-tech companies such as Galapagos Wetware. Galapagos employs Hal Briggs, a bio-engineer malcontent who, out of some mixture of curiosity, whim and willfulness, decides to mess with the system by installing feelings such as love and yearning into two of the company's assembly-line products, Kay and Jack.

If you think this sounds like a science-fiction Frankenstein story, you do not know Nova, a seriously witty novelist who bursts genre boundaries with deceptive ease.

Briggs, a master genetic code-writer, is particularly interested in Kay: "He had set it up so that when Kay saw him, she'd feel as though she knew him. She'd be delighted to see him. She'd trust him. She'd smile." In other words, Briggs --lonely and not a little cynical -- wants her to fall for him.

She does, but Briggs cannot foresee that monkeying with his company's product will have another effect: Kay and Jack want to escape. Wetware creations are the future's new servant-class; Nova's devilishly clever concept is that these humanoids do all the dirty work, literally and figuratively, from sweeping the streets to killing the enemies of their owners. Kay and Jack, as retooled by Briggs, want to live the lives of ordinary people -- to have free will.

Nova is the author of numerous books including the majestic The Good Son (1982), as fine a novel as any contemporary American has written about fathers and sons. Wetware is Nova's take on both cyberpunk sci-fi and hardboiled fiction. Briggs, a hashish-smoking loner, a moody brainiac with the soul of both a romantic and an anarchist, is, like so many late-20th-century anti-heroes, sympathetic, mordantly funny but doomed to be disappointed.

And paranoid: At one point he wonders about his work on Kay: "If he had added love and desire, mathematical brilliance, an instinct for music, why, then it would have been possible for someone else to add other qualities, like fury, a delight in power or the worst possible instinct for doing injury, as though darkness were an irresistible and delicious way of knowledge. Whose ideas were dominant anyway, his or someone else's?"

Wetware summons up a cold, malevolent world in which such speculations seem warranted. Without meaning to, Briggs' manipulation of the "code" programmed into the Kay and Jack wetware results in an awful side- effect -- the growth and release of a virus, an incurable "flu," that begins killing people.

If Wetware takes an old theme and inverts it (instead of, "Don't mess with Mother Nature," it's "Don't mess with Father Science"), Nova is not content to leave it at that. Instead, he deepens his tale with details both witty (a marvelous you-are-there arcade game called "Arctica X," for example) and poignant, as Kay's unexpected range of emotions leads her to acts of bravery and destruction that makes reading Wetware a constant thrill, a constant surprise.

Ken Tucker is a music critic for National Public Radio's Fresh Air and critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly, where he writes about television, movies, books and music. He was a critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1982 to 1989.

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