More than anything, Tom Raines wants to be important, though his shadowy life is anything but that. For years, Tom’s drifted from casino to casino with his unlucky gambler of a dad, gaming for their survival. Keeping a roof over their heads depends on a careful combination of skill, luck, con artistry, and staying invisible.
Then one day, Tom stops being invisible. Someone’s been watching his virtual-reality prowess, and he’s offered the incredible—a place at the Pentagonal Spire, an elite military academy. There, Tom’s instincts for combat will be put to the test, and if he passes, he’ll become a member of the Intrasolar Forces, helping to lead his country to victory in World War Three. Finally, he’ll be someone important: a superhuman war machine with the tech skills that every virtual-reality warrior dreams of. Life at the Spire holds everything that Tom’s always wanted—friends, the possibility of a girlfriend, and a life where his every action matters—but what will it cost him?
Gripping and provocative, S. J. Kincaid’s futuristic thrill ride of a debut crackles with memorable characters, tremendous wit, and a vision of the future that asks startling, timely questions about the melding of humanity and technology.
-cover and synopsis courtesy goodreads
Sean’s Atmospheric Analysis: Circuit boards are cool, right? I like this cover well enough, but I can’t help thinking that something with more of ’SF military’ look might suit the book better.
Phoebe’s Atmospheric Analysis: Seconding Sean. There’s something a touch girly about the (hur) insignia on the cover, which I think might cause this one to be overlooked by some members of the book’s strongest potential audience–namely twelve-year-old boys.
Sean’s Planetary Class: Uh…science fiction? Or ‘military SF with cyberpunk overtones’, if you want to be more specific. The book reads like a watered-down melding of Tom Clancy’s Net Force series and Ender’s Game.
Phoebe’s Planetary Class: Military/cyberpunk SF sounds spot-on to me! (Even if I haven’t read Net Force)
Sean’s Viability Rating: Neural implants have been a staple of science fiction for a while now, but they’ve never really been plausible. Having said that, I had more issues with the idea of people on Earth remotely controlling drones in space. We’re told about a famous series of battles taking place near Jupiter’s moons, but controlling something that far away would be an extremely slow process given the distances involved – you’re looking at an hour (at the very least) between sending a command and receiving any sort of feedback from the ship. Most likely, the opposing drones would end up flying off in completely different directions while their operators tried to react to half-hour old information.
Phoebe’s Viability Rating: While the Jupiter-tech might not be technically plausible in the particulars, the remote drone technology is a nice analog to stuff the American military is using today. The nitpicker in me wants to note that some of the cultural references here (particularly one to 2001: A Space Odyssey) are preposterously dated and fairly inappropriate for the characters in question. The literary hedonist in me doesn’t want to let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
Sean’s Mohs Scale: For me, this hovers somewhere between a 3 and a 4 on the Mohs Scale. The neural implants might as well be made of unobtainium, while the uses the characters put them to are no more plausible. (For example, I doubt it would be simple to rewrite a person’s personality and memories just because you know how their implant works.) Of course, none of this is supposed to be hard SF, so feel free to sit back and bask in the phlebotinum. I also got a kick out of the fact that the implants have realistically computer-nerd names for their programming languages.
Phoebe’s Mohs Scale: I’d give this one a solid 4. The handwavium is all an outgrowth of the neural implanting, so it seems to all be One Big Lie.
Sean’s Xenolinguistical Assessment: Phoebe told me that Insignia seems to be actively (I’d say even aggressively) targeting straight 12 year old boys – to the exclusion of all others, even. The characters’ dialogue in particular comes across as playground-style attempts at hypermasculinity, in a way that sometimes feels at odds with the supposedly weighty situation those same characters have found themselves in.
In terms of quality, though, the prose here certainly isn’t bad.
Phoebe’s Xenolinguistical Assessment: The prose here is solid, unobtrusive, and very readable. Sean’s right that the dialogue is very . . . teenage boy (including some body policing of one slightly masculine teenage girl that made me pretty much want to smack these kids), but I didn’t find this a contradiction at all. They talked like fourteen-year-olds at a military academy likely would–warts and all.
Sean’s Expanded Report: I’ll say one thing about Insignia: it knows why kids enjoy video games, and it avoids the usual trap of talking down to its audience about it.
In Ender’s Game, the main characters are manipulated into thinking that a life-and-death war against a distant foe is actually an elaborate video game; at the moment when Ender discovers the truth, he has a complete mental breakdown. In Insignia, the very similar setup (except everyone knows it’s real from the beginning) is presented as a way of fulfilling an adolescent desire for greatness. Tom Raines is stuck in a pretty crappy situation at the beginning of the novel, so what’s wrong with him trying to acquire a bit of vicarious glory in virtual reality? Unusually, the book treats the whole idea seriously, rather than brushing it off with some condescending ‘Reality is always better’ finger-wagging.
Lest you think the comparison to Ender’s Game is high praise, I should point out that this is one of the few things I thought the book did right. Taken as a whole, Insignia is best described as Ender’s Game with its fangs removes; there is almost no danger here, no sense of real urgency (barring one very good scene involving a memory scanning device). The characters are being trained to fight a war that is literally without casualties, which doesn’t make for a particularly thrilling story.
It doesn’t help that most of the characters treat their entire situation as though it was even more frivolous than it really is. Tom and his friends repeatedly commit treason, up to and including going out on VR dates with an infamous enemy combatant, with only the slightest protests that they might eventually get in trouble over it. I half-expected the end of the book to involve someone announcing that the whole thing had just been a practical joke, or else a training exercise for something much more important.
The backstory at least does involve some higher-stakes events, one of which left me feeling more than a little bit uncomfortable. We’re told that thirty-three years before the story’s present time, the Middle East (the entirety of it, I guess) was bombed to oblivion by a coalition of the American and Chinese militaries – both of which were backed by massive corporations. Is this the author’s way of commenting on the fact that the USA has blithely invaded two Middle Eastern countries in the past decade? It could be, and the whole thing is treated as a shameful event (although the characters seem strangely unconcerned by the idea of the government they are now working for committing the most horrific genocide in history), but I can’t help but feel that it’s in poor taste. It also serves no real purpose other than demonstrate the callousness of the book’s many mega-corporations.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with a book that aims for fun rather than philosophy, but it might not be the best place to allude to a very real war going on today.
Phoebe’s Expanded Report: It’s funny; nothing that bothered Sean about this book significantly bothered me. I found the political back-drop to be a step-above what’s usually found in this sort of action-oriented military science fiction, a realistic extrapolation of the current political landscape and an unfortunately realistic reflection on how kids in conquering (and culture-destroying) nations think of those their predecessors have vanquished. Which is to say, they don’t generally think of them at all. No, SJ Kincaid doesn’t go for incisive or pointed political commentary. Again, these aspects of the novel are simply background elements to what Sean quite aptly describes as Ender’s Game lite. But neither does it seem to be motivated by particular cultural prejudices.
In fact, I found quite a bit to like in Insignia, conceptually speaking. It’s the story of Tom Raines, a zitty teenaged gambler who is recruited into a military school by a hot girl. Tom’s a spot-on realistic fourteen-year-old boy. When we first meet him, he uses a cocksure exterior to hide his secret shames: a mother who has abandoned him, a cruel stepfather, a gambling-addicted (and slightly crazy) dad. Tom’s skill at video games attracts the attention of military recruiters who invite him to the Spire, a military installation in the Pentagon. There, he meets a gaggle of teenage soldiers who he soon befriends, is implanted with neural technology that makes him supersmart, and gets sucked into various instances of military school intrigue.
The introduction of Tom’s neural implant is probably the best handling of this sort of concept that I’ve seen. Kincaid does a solid job showing us how the technology changes Tom’s every thought–the very way he interacts with the world is inextricably altered. It’s a strong science-fictional concept, even if (as Sean points out), it’s not strictly possible. But Kincaid sure makes this technology, and the risks that ensue, feel plausible.
Even more plausible are the teenagers. Tom’s friends–Vikram, Yuri, and Wyatt–are vivid, complex, real. They’re also slightly obnoxious. The boys tease Wyatt (a girl with a boy’s name, as the text acknowledges) and call her “man hands.” Though she eventually earns her come-uppance–by stooping to their level, unfortunately–and though this dialogue was certainly realistic, it also made me want to give her a big hug and tell the guys to quit being so mean. Kincaid chooses realism here over modeling positive behavior. That’s fine–YA doesn’t need to be didactic–but I just hate that kind of gender policing even when it comes from real people, and it did make me cringe. And yet the teens forge a real, genuine friendship. Their nascent relationships are tender, even cute. The way they stick their necks out for each other is completely endearing. They felt like real teenagers in so many ways to me, even in their foibles.
So we have all the parts for a really strong science fiction novel: unobtrusive prose; interesting SFnal conceits; a well-rendered political backdrop; deftly-crafted characters. And yet as I read on, my attention frequently flagged. This is essentially a school story (“sci-fi Harry Potter” would not be far off), but as we follow Tom in his daily life, I noticed a lack of strong central conflict. Many of Tom’s problems were quickly resolved–his unattractive appearance, his lack of friends. Though he starts the novel deeply neglected by his father, he writes him off well-before the school story is meaningfully underway, and their relationship goes unmined for most of the book. The truth was, I wasn’t sure what the stakes were for Tom through much of the novel, and so I never felt particularly deeply invested. Ultimately, I concluded that Tom’s deepest desire was to get the–a?–girl, but even this plot element was relegated to sub-sub-sub plot until the novel’s end.
The way the novel concluded, in fact, left me deeply conflicted. I’m just not sure what I think of it, or how it sat with me–though I do admit it was gripping in a way that much of the novel’s middle wasn’t. It’s one of those endings you want to contemplate, discuss, pick apart. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tom’s actions didn’t cause at least a little controversy in the blog-o-sphere.
All that being said, there is quite a bit to admire in Insignia. It’s not a deep book, or a perfectly crafted book, but it’s a respectable debut and the kind of YA sci-fi that many teens are craving. If Insignia were a movie, it would be Tron: Legacy–nice to look at, not bad for a popcorn flick.