Book of the month
Review by Andrew Heaton
BZRK – Michael Grant
We are told often that there is a dark side to technology. When great progress is made to advance civilisation, there is inevitably going to be a section of the population who want us to heed the warnings.
When Gutenberg invented the printing press, Luddites were concerned about the livelihood of monks who would surely lose their roles as scribes. When mobile phones started becoming popular, many were quick to point out the cancer-causing rays that such technology brings (a debate that is still going on).
And when nanotechnology became a thing, some were worried about the ethical issues of having microscopic bots scurrying around inside the human body.
Guess which one we're talking about today...
A war wages between two factions: the nanobots and the biots. While nanobots are recognised as the flagship micro-technology, it is the biots that are touted as superior. Connecting biologically with its owner's mind, these bots don't require the user to be connected via chairs and screens. They work via natural biology rather than artificial technology.
In the midst of this war are two teenagers: Sadie McClure - heiress to the McClure fortune and the last remaining member of her family after the murder of her brother and father; and Noah Cotton - who desperately wants to find out what sent his military brother insane.
Together they are hired by BZRK, a clandestine group of biot users who seek to outwit their enemies: the nanobot users of the AFGC corporation, an equally secret organisation run by Siamese twins who have plans to advance the human race by manipulating the leaders of the free world.
I'll admit right now that I have never read a YA novel in my life. At nearly thirty-six, I feel I may have missed the boat on that one. Not that I have anything against older people who do want to read fiction that is marketed towards a slightly younger audience.
That said, BZRK, seems to teeter between youthful storytelling and adult-orientated themes. Maybe this is how all YA books are. I don't know. But with its plucky teenager protagonists, and enough violence and gore to whet the appetite, Michael Grant attempts to bridge the gap between the two.
In the early stages of the story, I was anticipating an action-packed thriller, fit to burst with cautionary moments about nanotechnology, about the possibility of a dystopian world, about the future for human kind everywhere. What I actually got was a healthy dose of the latter, with the former three themes dug deep into the narrative with barely a mention.
It's obvious that BZRK is dripping with action and it falls into that weird territory of 'the author had way more fun writing this than he would want to admit'. In the opening chapters, a helicopter crashes into a sports stadium. The ensuing description is akin to an excitable kid doing their level best to write a graphic scene: "and then they all blew up and heads and arms and bodies went flying and there was blood and stuff and it was awesome. Also explosions."
The action sequences themselves are a surprising venture, in that a lot of the time they don't quite have that gripping sense of appeal. It's important to remember that a lot of the more exciting parts of the story take place in two places at the same time: in the the real world ("the macro") and at the nano level where the bots are. Writing such scenes must have been an ambitious challenge for Grant. It's just a bit of a shame then that much of them failed to pull me in.
The action dances between the two 'worlds' (for want of a better term) in much the same way that marionettes dance about on stage only for their strings to get tangled up. It feels up to the reader to pull apart the messy moments of fighting and chasing and it makes for almost exhausting storytelling.
The descriptions of the world from the nanobots and biots perspective also prove challenging as the author attempts to create this world that we know, yet is equally alien. I have to tip my hat off to him in this respect, because again it must have been quite the headache trying to convincingly describe human skin, an eyeball, the human brain or hairs on a dog from a microscopic standpoint.
This is perhaps the crux of the issue I had with the book. Despite it being YA, it was obviously intended as an ambitious story that Grant struggles a bit to pull together. He intertwines these moments of action with a healthy mix of mediocre characterisation. It's not even the fact that many of them are teenagers. It's the fact that they seldom have much that helps readers connect with them.
One such character goes by the name of Bug Man: a 'twitcher' working for the enemy who seeks to do one better than anyone else by being the best at controlling his nanobots. We are privy to his personal life and know enough about him to see that he is terrified by his boss, bullied by his co-workers, yet highly skilled at what he does. It's difficult to know whether we are supposed to like him or not. The author has obviously decreed him interesting enough to devote entire chapters to, but any ambiguousness towards Bug Man falls flat when we discover he rewired a girls brain (using his trademark nanobots) to make her fall in love with him.
I would also say I'm concerned about many of the characters being given slightly xenophobic qualities. Even the protagonists - the heroes of the story - are shown to be suspicious of people who don't seem to match their worldview of foreignness.
Sadie internally admonishes her doctor's long name by pointedly shortening it to make it easier to pronounce, while Noah struggles to accept that a man with a thick Asian accent should have the name Pound.
Maybe Chaudrhy, maybe Singh...but the man's accent did not flow from places where the last name of Pound was common. p.86
There are moments like this dotted throughout and it makes it harder to care about the characters and their plight. Having said that, one scene does stick out as being a cut above he rest.
When Sadie and Noah are thrust into this new world with barely any training, they spend the night together. while the scene felt it was going to lead to some cringey teen lovemaking, it transpired into a sweet moment between two children who have had their lives turned upside down. We see at this point a genuine vulnerability that is not spoken of beforehand or afterwards.
It's a shame then that the action keeps the reader from getting to truly dig deep into the personalities of the characters, and it's probably Grants undoing for making the story far too focused on the PEW-PEW-PEW.
Essentially, BZRK is a story loosely about freedom of choice, about protecting the right for human beings to be who they are. With this it splices in a myriad of messy action sequences in a lacklustre attempt to pay homage to the Fantastic Voyage. It only really manages to pull off some of the more subdued scenes, in which the men are unrelatable and tedious, the women run the gamut between teenage eye candy and a walking stereotype of 'edginess', and the plot just failed to keep me engaged throughout.