Real life ain’t what it used to be. Older generations have always voiced dire warnings for their descendants, of course, convinced things aren’t as good as they used to be. Often as not, those pronouncements are sour grapes from people withno patience for the new, and that’s just as well, as their cries almost always fall upon deaf ears. But it does feel like recent decades have seen a sea change in the ways in which we live our lives. As far back as anyone can remember or imagine, we’ve allowed ourselves to get lost in books, then television, then video games—but the physical world was always waiting, like it or not. We’re suddenly living very differently: our news, entertainment, and even our social interactions are increasingly happening through a glossy screen. It’s easy to get lost in a digital life that feels at least as real as what’s out the window, and it’s only going to get easier as technology marches on. It’s clearer every day don’t begin to understand the full implications of how we’re living now for a long time to come. It’s that disconnectedness Ferrett Steinmetz (Flex) tackles in The Uploaded.
In a future world that doesn’t feel all that far ahead of our own, an entrepreneur named Walter Wickliffe has invented a virtual heaven populated by the uploaded minds of generation after generation of the dead. Your brain gets mapped at regular intervals so that, upon natural death, your consciousness gets zapped into, essentially, a vast MMORPG. It’s a paradise where you live on indefinitely alongside everyone else who’s ever died, playing games and going on quests of your own choosing, with opportunities to level up and keep eternity interesting.
Like some of the living, Amichai Damrosch is not entirely thrilled with the promise of the Upterlife. His parents, lucky enough to have died young, can barely be bothered to check in on him and his sister Izzy, for all the many joys of their virtual heaven. “Lucky,” I say, because people are pretty keen to die: Wickliffe ensured his heaven would be an egalitarian one, with no distinctions made for money or class, but criminals can be barred from entry, or “voided”—condemned to the traditional form of oblivion. Same for people who commit anything that can be construed as suicide.
Not only has the physical world become somewhat passé, but the dead far outnumber the living, and hold tremendous political sway. They can access public cameras, creating their own reality shows from the wilder activities ongoing on Earth, and they have a say in who gets into the Upterlife, meaning the definition of criminality can vary wildly. For the most part, people are content to carry out physical drudgery on behalf of the dead (moving things, maintaining servers, etc.), leaving creative endeavors to the great-great grandparents in the hopes they can one day join them. There’s very little that could be progress in the living world; even computer programming is illegal, since the living might find ways to disrupt the Upterlife servers.
Amichai lives right on the edge of the void: he’s a little too young to care if his rebellious behavior endangers his afterlife. But then an accident leaves his sister, Izzy, in need of long-term care. If she’d died, it would be one thing, but she’s looking at 70 years of life in a broken shell. The brush with mortality forces Amichai to reconsider his choices. Caring for his sister, either now or in eternity, means looking ahead, and getting back on the good side of the dead means risking his life in a hail-mary mission to expose a group of NeoChristian terrorists with designs on bringing down the whole system.
When we talk about the American dream, we’re often referring to a willingness to give in to the demands of the system in favor of some imagined future reward—the belief that playing by the rules will get us what the people in the fancy houses on the other side of town have. The same system of motivation tracks to the religious idea that this world isn’t as worth caring for as the next. Do what you’re told, collect your prize:that’s the Upterlife in a nutshell. A book this full of big ideas, trucking in the post-apocalyptic, could be a slog, but Steinmetz is perfectly willing to have fun with his concept, filling the book with action and tackling heady issues with unpretentious prose. He’s asking questions rather than drawing conclusions, and has crafted his lead character perfectly: a cynical smartass who nevertheless has a real heart when it comes to his sister and his friends. As an adventure story with cyberpunk overtones, it’s funny, well-crafted, and briskly paced. As a book of ideas? In the grand tradition of thoughtful future science fiction that comments on our present, it’s as pointed a social satire as you’re likely to find this side of the Upterlife.