by Steve Toutonghi
Science fiction can be as cold as a computer user’s manual in the hands of an unskilled writer. All technology; no passion.
In JOIN, author Steve Toutonghi has built a story around a big what-if idea: what if people could merge, retaining their separate bodies but having shared consciousness and memories?
He has created engaging and varied characters, whose lives and experiences vividly demonstrate the wonders and the darknesses of his proposition.
In this world, a corporation (Vitalcorp) has created the technology to medically perform a join that connects people through their brains while leaving their bodies unattached and free. After a brief research period, Vitalcorp takes the technology to market and it goes viral. Participants must purchase a license before joining. The larger the join, the more expensive the license.
Not all people want to join or approve of it. Joins tend to be more professionally and financially successful because they bring multiple minds to every member and job they take on. The impact of join technology on society (think Social Security, crime and punishment, company benefit programs) has made Vitalcorp a quasi-governmental entity with 1984 overtones. It also creates a dividing line between those who have the resources to do a join and those who don’t.
Some people in this world, joined and unjoined, reject it and set up their own feral communities. Given the environmental devastation that has taken place in this world, these people face harsh conditions, an eroding landscape and severe, unpredictable storms.
Join revolves around two joins: the five-member Chance join and the four-member Leap join. They intersect with the friendship of Chance Two and Leap Two, women who trained as pilots specializing in long-haul atmospheric aviation.
Tragedy strikes Chance twice: first when its newest and youngest member, Chance Five, learns he has terminal cancer; and second when Chance Three, a specialist in quantum personality matrices (a “join doctor”) is murdered in a bar by a rogue join, Rope.
Tragedy also strikes Leap. Its members appear to either have a virus or a mutation that sometimes occurs when a member who is becoming part of a join decides at a critical last moment that he or she absolutely doesn’t want to join. The result is a progressive and fatal neurological condition.
(If a member of a join dies or is killed, his or her bodies dies, but memories and experiences remain part of the join.)
Rope engages in self-destructive behaviors, purposefully killing off members in macabre experiments to see how the join is affected, and expanding its membership well beyond the 20-person per join legal limit. As Rope’s total membership increases and multiple deaths occur, it becomes less and less clear how much of an effect any one member has on the whole — or how human the whole even is. Rope appears to have some connection with the Directorate that oversees joins.
Chance and Leap join forces to keep Chance out of range of Rope and to try to find a cure for Leap’s condition. To do this, they are smuggled out of an urban area to a frontier where a join community is living under the protection of a powerful ally, who is allowing them to do experiments that may save Leap.
Toutonghi does a wonderful job of maintaining his story while addressing both individual and societal issues. His characters are diverse, interesting and likeable. At the same time, the ramifications of joins is intriguing: how does the death of one member affect the join as a whole? How do the different temperaments balance each other in a join? How do energy levels and emotional controls work? How do joins affect society — the Social Security system? The economy? Laws and regulations? At what point does the whole become something that is not longer human?
This is fascinating science fiction with a rare emotional warmth.