This is one of the best Sci-fi novels I have read. Sci-fi was never in my top favorite genres because a lot of it usually falls flat for me, probably because I’ve never been super interested in science. But this story was striking and brought up a philosophical issue I’ve found myself pondering about before.
The story follows Lucy Henderson and her friends/ragtag crew of survivors when they find themselves thrown into an apocalyptic summer. Teenagers start acting strangely – twitching uncontrollably, eyes changing color, oh and also violently murdering people because it makes them “feel better.” Turns out it all stems from a biotech company that planted itself outside this small town in Oregon. They were developing a device called “The Oracle” that was meant to improve society, connect everyone, and make them easier to control of course.
“In the big picture, we had a chance to save humanity from pain, depression, addiction… everything. We were going to give people a broad-spectrum tool for truly controlling their lives, and minds, and bodies. Oracle was going to cure society’s ills.”
Except, of course, the exact opposite happened because the company rushed through prototyping and skipped any sort of testing before implanting the device in the town’s teenagers. Their parents obviously would want the best for them, whatever could bring them closer to a bright future, and that is what The Oracle claimed. Instead, in trying to eliminate any form of pain, the device became a loop of extremely high to extremely low amounts of dopamine – the low levels an extreme darkness, a blankness of feeling, that the kids found themselves desperate to escape from. Their first test subject just so happened to be a kid who found pleasure in causing pain, and since The Oracle connected everyone who it is implanted in, that message of Pain = Pleasure ran through them all.
Lucy, though, discovers a fighting spirit inside of her that was born from the trauma and pain of her life. She was actually adopted into the Hendersons’ family. She was born in Peru as Lucia Alvarez. Her parents were extreme alcoholics and died in a car crash which she was present for. Her days in the orphanage were not any less traumatic than her time with her birth parents. Finally, she found a loving home with the Hendersons, a best friend who shares her pain of being the “outsider,” and a boy who she finds out sees her for who she truly is and likes what he sees. Then, all of a sudden, it all crumbles down as her peers begin to terrorize the town. But she refuses to lay down in defeat. She refuses to become “meat” for whatever evil has ripped away the only comfort she’d ever known.
I said earlier that this story brought up a philosophical issue that I’ve thought of before and that is “If we could erase all human suffering, should we?” The answer I always come to is that without suffering, without our low moments, we could not truly comprehend and appreciate all the good moments. And we wouldn’t just be consistently happy. The pain would be replaced with an emptiness. The Oracle device gave this a more scientific spin, bringing in the controlling of dopamine and other such chemicals in the body. The darkness that came with the dropping of the dopamine levels caused them to seek out a way to lift them back into that high, and the way they did that was based on the first test subject, Jason, who found pleasure in causing pain.
“Whatever it was in the Oracle that Jason had taught how to feel was rewriting her code, teaching her this was good, that this was how to escape the loop, how to stay on, how to make herself feel anything at all, and the absence is returning but you don’t have to feel the low.”
The way that Lucy uses the survival instincts that sprang from her traumatic early years to keep herself and her friends alive throughout the story reads as a message saying “Our pain makes us stronger.” The troubles surrounding The Oracle device reads as a message saying “Although we all have the same chemical makeup, it is how we react to pain, what makes us happy, our pasts, our impulses, our likes and dislikes, our desires, our knowledge, even our sense of humor that makes us who we are. These all make us vastly different from each other and therefore impossible to completely regulate and control as one entity.”