Wetware

( 2 )

Overview

As a programmer for Galapagos Wetware, Hal Briggs is responsible for writing the genetic code for simple, efficient creatures to be employed in menial jobs–sweeping streets or washing dishes. But the demands for “wetware” are changing, and Briggs is given a project that calls for more sophisticated models: clients are demanding more human appearance and behavior.

As the project progresses, Briggs finds himself endowing the new models with more than the specifications dictate, ...

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Wetware

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Overview

As a programmer for Galapagos Wetware, Hal Briggs is responsible for writing the genetic code for simple, efficient creatures to be employed in menial jobs–sweeping streets or washing dishes. But the demands for “wetware” are changing, and Briggs is given a project that calls for more sophisticated models: clients are demanding more human appearance and behavior.

As the project progresses, Briggs finds himself endowing the new models with more than the specifications dictate, giving them distinct personalities and talents and highly developed acumens. When two of his pet projects, Jack and Kay, escape, Briggs reexamines their codes and makes a terrifying yet provocative discovery.

From Craig Nova, a master of the modern novel, comes a tale eerie in its vision of a future not far off, of a world precariously close to today’s.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A haunting, heart-stoppingly exciting, brilliantly structured novel of suspense, ideas, and subtle characterization. . . . You can’t stop reading.” –Michael Dirda, The Washington Post Book World

“If there is a scintilla of justice in the literary universe, more readers will finally sit up and take notice of this wonderfully gifted writer.” –Dorman T. Shindler, The Denver Post

“A constant thrill, a constant surprise . . . witty, marvelous, poignant.” –Ken Tucker, The Baltimore Sun

“Dealing with issues as hot as today’s headlines, Wetware explores the essence of what it means to be human.” –St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“[Wetware is] the wonderfully entertaining, and powerfully composed, invention of one of our best prose artists at work on new themes."–The Chicago Tribune

“Nova is a master of integrating fantastical elements into a familiar cultural landscape. . . . Wetware’s world is a nightmare of genetic science gone awry, but Nova’s description of its mores and inhabitants is icily appealing.” —USA Today

"The world Nova envisions is . . . fascinating to visit." –The Philadelphia Inquirer

"It is profoundly difficult to put a Nova book down. . . . The characters are chillingly real and Nova's story has lasting, visceral power." –The Burlington Free Press

"[Nova is] the finest working novelist in America. . . . [Wetware has] achingly unique characters . . . and evocative dialogue." –Las Vegas Mercury

"Sympathetic, mordantly funny . . . witty and poignant. . . . A surprise." –The Oakland Tribune

"Nova walks a fine line between noir and straight-ahead fiction in his taut, moody, and piercing novels." –Booklist

"A seductive and intelligent novel about love and freedom . . . moving." –Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Guggenheim recipient Craig Nova (Universal Donor) presents Wetware, a novel set in a darkly atmospheric, not-too-distant future, when assembly-line human beings have found a big market. An unremarkable Wetware engineer named Briggs does something a little more remarkable, and his experiment with Wetware technology yields unexpected and potentially catastrophic results. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly
In this sincere but uneven SF novel from Nova (The Good Son) set in a gloomy and menacing near future, biotechnology engineer Hal Briggs designs human-like creatures to perform menial or dangerous jobs such as street-cleaning or mining. With demand high, the market is soon clamoring for advanced models with such skills as deceit, manipulation and marksmanship. But Briggs is this brave new world's Pygmalion. In creating perfect prototypes, he gives the woman, Kay, musical genius,, an appetite for love and an appreciation for beauty; on the man, Jack, he bestows qualities of strength and dependability. They could be his future lover and best friend. When the pair escape, Hal's job and life are suddenly both at risk. Jack and Kay stumble about the city like idiot savants, learning how to speak and dress as well as play Chopin and program computers while somberly enjoying their freedom. But what could have been a straightforward, fast-paced tale of pursuit and desire becomes hobbled by a sketchy subplot (concerning a woman embittered by unrequited love), the failure to explain basic realities of this futuristic world (why wearing clothing that's not up-to-date might be life threatening), and recurring doses of sentimentality registered in prose that tends toward the purple (Kay's tears were "the taste of childbirth, of passion, of everything that was so vital one cried in the face of it"). There are gripping moments, though, and Nova's premise that beauty is a vital and life-giving force stands out against the dark backdrop of an ominous, New York-like city. (Jan.) Forecast: With impressive credentials as a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters plus blurbs from John Irving and Jonathan Yardley, Nova is well placed to appeal to the high lit crowd. SF regulars, however, may feel they've seen it all before. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Imagine a world in the not-so-distant future where biotechnologists and/or genetic engineers create human clones to perform menial labor. At Galapagos Wetware, clones are created for this purpose with the exception of two special ones, Kay and Jack, who have been specially engineered for a new project. These two new clones have been designed for violent tasks. When cued, Jack should kill his target. Once Jack completes the job, then Kay is supposed to kill him. Engineer Hal Briggs strays from the original specifications for these two clones and adds code providing the clones with the ability to love and to see beauty in the world. When Kay and Jack escape the lab, they experience the joys of language (learned from a dictionary), the urge to become violent towards individuals, and the beauty found in such things as music. As expected, Galapagos Wetware becomes extremely upset when the clones escape. Briggs' superiors are concerned that they may be carrying a new disease that could endanger the rest of the population. Throughout the novel, Briggs fears for his own safety and worries that Galapagos will discover his tampering with the code. Briggs is also concerned with the clones' well being and even maintains an infatuation with Kay until the end. The atmosphere of the novel is especially dark, and the author excels at detailing the characters' thoughts and emotions. Set during the years 2026 through 2029, Nova describes a world not totally distant from our own. Stronger in characterization than in plot and a great choice for discussions revolving around industry, humanity, and civilization, this novel is recommended for literary SF readers. KLIATT Codes: SA;Recommended for senior highschool students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Vintage, 339p.,
— Ginger Armstrong
Library Journal
In a future where biotechnology has made it possible to create "wetware" organs, animals, toys that talk, and even crude humans Galapagos Technologies wants to go to the next level: creating smart humans capable of violence and deception. Engineer and sad-sack Briggs takes this plan even further; tired of the ugliness and brutality of his world, he surreptitiously programs beauty, talent, and the potential to love into his newest creations, Kay and Jack. But others around Briggs have different agendas for the two new beings, not least of whom is Kay herself. A dark look at the near future, this novel by the author of The Universal Donor hints at a grim civilization in decline, where fads rule with deadly results and technology has failed in its promise. While it explores a theme common in speculative fiction and even Nova's other works, this is a particularly chilling read, as each character fights hopelessly against the impending doom. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 8/01.] Devon Thomas, Hass Assocs., Inc., Ann Arbor, MI Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A seductive and intelligent novel about love and freedom set in a dreamlike near future. This time out, Nova (Brook Trout and the Writing Life, 1999, etc.) imagines a mutated urban landscape in which something as commonplace as fashion becomes an unspoken looming terror: fall behind the latest trends, or jump on a fad too soon, and find yourself without a job or home. Echoing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? R.U.R., and 1984, the story has an allegorical quality that derives from both its nonspecificity (something big happened that changed the world, but we don't know what) and from the interplay of the solid with the abstract (clones with a sense of unnamed longing). Thirty years from now, genetic engineer Briggs works for Galapagos Technologies, designing both total immersion computer games and novelties like souvenir mice that say, "I met you at the Seattle World's Fair." Amid life-or-death corporate politics, Briggs risks all to write improper code for a pair of clones: Jack and Kay. Commissioned for unpleasant tasks like assassination, they become Briggs's Adam and Eve. Jack is a deadly mathematical genius; Briggs gives Kay musical talents that make her listeners question their every belief; he also writes into her his own inner life and a need to be with him. Unknown to Briggs, his colleague Carr sneaks code into Kay to get revenge on an Ayn-Randian businessman with whom she had a fling. When Jack and Kay escape into the city, the lives and careers of Briggs and his bosses are endangered, as is humanity: not only can Jack and Kay reproduce, they might be carrying a new pathogen. While Briggs dodges death, corporate and real, Jack and Kay explore the world ofsensation and the limits of free will in the short time they have. Odd and oddly moving, with a strange mix of platonic shadow and human detail giving it a lingering power.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400031177
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/8/2003
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Craig Nova is the author of nine novels. He has received an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in Vermont.
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Read an Excerpt

The logo for Galapagos Wetware was an enormous turtle which smelled of iodine, salt, and seaweed. It hung above the door like a shoe above a cobbler's shop. The geometric pattern of the shell showed in dark greens and yellow, and the turtle's leatherlike flippers squeaked as they moved. Galapagos Wetware was in a building that had originally been a mill, and the architecture of the place still suggested the height of the machine age. What had been made here? Transformers? Electric motors? Generators? When Briggs worked late, he thought he could smell something that lingered from the time a small factory had been operated here. What was it? The scent that came from a spark in an electric engine or from the copper brushes in a generator? Even now he could feel the lingering, almost erotic quality of this scent that had been the essential perfume of that previous industrial age.

Briggs's first project, which he had started five years before, had been to design workers who would do jobs that no one else wanted: people who cleaned up in hospital rooms after patients had died from new, virulent diseases, or who worked in nursing homes where people died alone in the usual messes. And people were needed for jobs that still required the efficiency of the human hand. For instance, coal was mined and used in making plastics, but the automated cutter at the face sometimes got jammed, and someone had to go down into the hot depths, to the coal face, and reach into the machine's stainless-steel blades. A lot of people had tried to come up with an automated human hand, but everyone confronted the fact that nothing was as good as the opposable thumb. Briggs's boss, Mashita, was proud that he had been clearheaded enough to start making these creatures when other people were still worrying about whether or not such a thing should be done at all.

Of course, there were many emergencies. That was one of the things about all of this: everything was learned the hard way. One night the technicians had looked into the glass-covered platforms where the prototypes had been growing and discovered that the skin of the models was turning black, like plants touched by the first hard frost. Except, of course, these weren't plants. They had the shapes of humans, or the advanced ones did. There had been some speculation about how the room had been infected with weapons-grade smallpox. A pinprick in the tubes that circulated the growing medium, for instance, or maybe the virus had gotten in through some breach of procedures for maintaining a sterile room. The rules were rewritten and enforced more strictly.

When the skin turned black from smallpox, the technicians had looked through the glass canopy, where a creature's face had an expression of confused horror and a suspicion of events just beyond its ability to comprehend. The first thing, of course, would have been the sensation, only partially realized, of being almost alive. Briggs tried to imagine what it would be like to exist as an inanimate object feeling the first blush of life. The first sensation must have been increasing warmth. And along with that, an apprehension of the first odors, which here would probably be iodine, but perhaps the novelty of them would have made them pleasant, like the scent of apple pie in an oven. In this moment, though, the creature had been trying to make sense of the effect of the smallpox. It went through the growing medium like acid, like some starved thing that had finally found the feast it had always dreamed of. The prototypes had turned black from the toes up, from the lungs in. It took about twenty minutes. And this, of course, was just enough time to feel how the smallpox worked and to wonder about what it meant. IQs just sufficient to ask the hard questions, but not high enough to be able to answer them.

The technicians sat against the wall, hands in fists, bawling. It had surprised management how attached to the first prototypes the technicians had gotten, and how they had stayed extra hours to watch them grow. In an unguarded moment, the technicians said it had been reassuring and beautiful to see the extra-long polymers at work: the organs revealed themselves in magenta and gray, from which blue veins emerged, the pattern of the blood vessels like a tree in the fall without leaves. The bones got hard, and the eyes focused on a light for the first time. The technicians had found it hard to explain why they were certain that these creatures had been delighted by a sense of increasing life, by vitality that grew each day, but all were convinced that this was the case. You could see the delight in a creature's partially formed brow, raised in surprise, in obvious and joyful anticipation of what was happening. This keen thanksgiving for being alive, or almost alive, acted as a tonic on the people who saw it, and afterward these people looked at small things with a renewed pleasure, such as the pistachio-ice-cream tint of leaves in the springtime. These early technicians all learned something from the creatures beneath the glass. This was something that the technicians didn't talk about (for fear of getting fired), but it was one of the things that made them work long hours for little pay, just as it was the reason that they often came in on their own time to make sure everything was all right.

The bad thing had been the cleanup, the black shreds, the wilted bones, the pools of fluid, but the technicians had done it. In fact, they hadn't wanted anyone else to do it. They had all shown a fierce proprietorship, like members of a family who didn't want strangers to handle and bury their dead.

Well, those early technicians didn't work here anymore. There wasn't time now for such considerations, and of course it could cause trouble. What the personnel section was looking for were professionals. Cool. Certain. Who didn't give a damn about the first cry of surprise or terror that came from one of the growing platforms.

Briggs had watched the effect of the smallpox like the rest of them. Then he'd gone back to work, redoing the code for the first models, improving their immune systems, but as he worked he felt the first desire to add something that was not in the specifications. He thought about it at night, when he was on his way home, and then first thing in the morning. What he kept coming back to was this: since he was the basic designer for this project, he was allowing these creatures to be sentient, but not allowing them the ability to make sense out of those moments when a sentient or conscious creature had to confront mortality. Or just exquisite pain. How could they make sense out of that? All they felt was a kind of black terror. And, of course, these creatures would certainly confront the obvious fact of mortality, not through an accident, like the smallpox, but in their ordinary work. These creatures would be used until they were worn out or killed.

These new creatures were, as Briggs began more and more to believe, pornographic, which is to say they would exist as people to be used. And yet, in the places where they were allowed to be almost human, they had nothing but a few obsequious gestures and words. There was nothing intricate in their makeup, nothing beautiful or passionate, nothing that would respond to music or would allow them the freedom to investigate, with a thrill, the onset of the enormous and mysterious attraction to another human being. Their psychology was perfect. They were too practical for such concerns as the mystery of being alive. They were gray-skinned, dull-eyed, with hair like an indoor-outdoor carpet.

Briggs added a cue for the first models. He wanted them to have a capacity for visionary experience, however brief, that would give them peace and allow them to perceive their difficulties, even in extreme circumstances, as something beautiful. Briggs had studied the lives of the saints, looking for descriptions of the most beatific moments, and then he had worked long hours to find a way to include this ability in these blunt, gray creatures. In those days he had been uncertain about doing such a thing, and so he had included a cue, a word that activated this ability. He didn't tell anyone that he had done this, just as he didn't tell anyone what word triggered this ability.

Of course, when these creatures were put into production, he would see them from time to time, working on the garbage truck, for instance, that came through his neighborhood. They were plodding, uninspired, uncurious, going about their business with a brutal frankness. The men had short haircuts and heavy beards, and they wore baggy clothes that were gray, and looked as if they were cut from rags that had been used to clean a floor. If a button fell off, or if a hole was worn into a shoe, the creatures did the only thing they knew how to do, which was to endure. They pulled their coats together and persisted. Maybe they stuck a piece of paper into a shoe or tied the coat together with a piece of twine, but that was it. They had thick hands and undefined but large muscles. They tended to be dumpy. Briggs noticed that their noses were often running, and he made a note to himself to look into the sections of the creatures' code that controlled their immune systems and their allergic reactions.

Briggs saw these early creatures in other places too, in the alleys behind restaurants where they worked as busboys and dishwashers. Once he looked into the window of a greasy spoon and saw one of them working at the side of a gray dishwasher, which looked like an armored car in a cloud of steam. The man (or at least that was what he looked like) seemed an extension of the machine: the same gray color, the same sluggish insistence, and a repetitive movement of elbows, as abrupt as the push rods on the side of an old steam locomotive. Briggs was mesmerized as he watched the gray shapes in the steam.

The inside of the window was covered with rills of condensed water, the bead at the head of each one giving them the look of transparent and very small snakes, and as Briggs watched, the lines of moisture obscured what was going on inside. He went on looking, his heart pounding, his head aching. He rolled his shoulders and looked around and tried to walk away. The night was clear and cold, and he took a step up the street, but turned back at the sound of a hiss.

Through the window he saw that the creature had been tugging at a black tube, jerking it one way and then another, and that it had come loose and had started spraying a white jet of steam. It swept over the creature's face, almost like water coming out of a hose. Then the black tube fell to the ground and swung back and forth, spraying steam, bumping into the legs of the dishwashing machine.

The creature made a low, doglike howl, a two-tone wail that was repeated over and over, since the only way the intensity of it could be increased was through the sheer number of cries. His face had been scalded, and as he sat down, shocked by the sudden sensation, he let his apron fall into the mechanized works of the machine. He was dragged into the stainless-steel works of the tanklike thing, where the levers, gears, and chains worked in the damp. By the time that Briggs had gotten inside and called to a cook to turn the thing off, the creature had been mangled.

"Ah, Jesus," said the cook. "What a mess. Shit."

Briggs leaned down, under the machine, and held the creature's head. His hair was wet and his skin had an unnatural heat, although the skin wasn't really red yet. His eyes looked up at Briggs and blinked, and then he howled that same two-toned cry, which seemed to be uninformed by anything aside from the rankest, unrelieved misery, like that of a child who has just lost a leg in a stupid accident. The creature took Briggs's hand and pulled him down into the greasy hot space under the machine, but all the creature could do was say, "It hurts. It hurts."

Briggs put his lips close to the creature's ears and whispered the word, the cue.

The creature looked up at Briggs, his stare sharpening, everything about him quickened, more alert, more penetrating. The howling stopped, and for an instant the creature looked around the room, at the clouds of steam, which appeared cloudlike and soft, and out of it he must have seen Briggs's face in a nimbus of steam and light. Briggs looked down, desperately wanting to comfort, to do anything to make up for this, which seemed so like that moment when the smallpox had done its worst. The creature closed his eyes. When he opened them, he said to Briggs, "Oh, if you could only see."

Briggs sat there while the creature trembled, eyes closed, concentrating on a moment of illumination. Soon, though, it passed, and when it did, the man looked at Briggs and said, "You did that. I know you did. It was so . . . " He grasped Briggs's hand and looked at him. "Oh, please, mister. It was so . . . If I could just tell you." He closed his eyes and trembled with concentration. "Beautiful," he said. "Is that a word?" Then he went back to the two-toned, unrelieved howling, although every now and then he looked at Briggs and said, "Mister, oh, please, oh, mister . . . won't you help me?"

Briggs sat in the alley when it was over, looking up to the end of it where the avenue began. He could still feel the grip of the creature's hand on his forearm, the desperate, imploring touch, just as he could remember in the creature's eyes that terrifying and soothing instant of illumination.

Briggs went to work the next day and the day after, trying to tell himself one thing and then another, trying to explain, to let himself off the hook, but never really able to do so. In fact, while he wanted to get away from the entire thing, from encoding biology into digital form, the project went into the next stage, and in a way Briggs couldn't quite explain, he was almost exhilarated by having a chance to do more of what was causing him such terror. Maybe, he thought, I can find a way to put some of this to rights.

The next stage for Galapagos was to produce creatures more like humans than the originals were. The imperatives of the market for these new models seemed to be working like natural selection, and often Briggs wondered whether he was in charge or merely encoding the markets. Surely, though, some of the nasty jobs the next, more advanced versions would be required to do would involve violence. These were the worst jobs, the ones that most people didn't want to do. For instance, the new creatures were going to have to be good with handguns, just as they were going to be required to understand more complicated orders. And there were other items that the market seemed to want: the ability to deceive, to bide one's time, to do all the morally suspect things that people have always had to do, but which made them feel dirty. The creatures had to be versatile, able to understand the way to do often mischievous work--whisper campaigns, say--or to pose as something they weren't. Law enforcement was interested in using them to buy illegal drugs, of which there were many these days. Too many police officers were getting killed with traditional methods. Of course, the company knew there would be a black market in these creatures, too, but the truth was that this just meant the profit margin would be greater. Far greater.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2012

    Sci-fi about human beings

    This is a different kind of sci-fi. Nova writes his characters as deep and complicated people; searching for meaning in a world that has become too technical. A world that reduces humanity to a commodity. When people become things that can be designed like computer software what does it mean to be human?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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