A software engineer perfects a system that delivers fragrances vividly over computers, but is her programming responsible for a deadly military mishap?
In this techno-thriller, Dustin borrows a page/screenshot from the early dot-com era, circa 2000, when creating odors and effectively reproducing smells over computer networks actually became a reality—briefly. In the real world, scant commercial interest in the prospect of being able to smell your PC made the gimmick a technological nonstarter. But the author takes this curio and sets the story’s premise in a near future in which the Covid-19 pandemic still rages, and the virus’s infamous symptom of loss of smell puts a new complexion on things. Artima “Arty” Ressols, a single mom on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., is a software engineer at Artificial Intelligence Systems Enterprises, which is in the cutthroat business of vying for government contracts. Arty was born with hyperosmia, extremely acute olfactory senses. With this talent, she has devised “scent and smell” (SAS) software and hardware that can deliver odors—to soothe, stimulate, unlock memories, and generally enhance numerous human functions and performance. It’s not just for more vibrant gaming; users of Arty’s SAS watch are better able to detect Covid-19 infection. But there is an unexpected crisis. A United States Navy aircraft carrier in the Pacific, outfitted with AISE systems, has suffered an inexplicable missile misfire, sending a lethal volley at a Russian ship and triggering a serious international incident. Arty learns that her SAS system happened to be engaged during the malfunction. Coincidence? Or something more ominous? The hero fights for the right to investigate in person and find out why what she’s hearing doesn’t pass her smell test. More a drama than a futuristic suspense yarn, Dustin’s series opener churns at a low but steady boil. While some readers may wish for more action, others (especially women) will welcome this story as a 180-degree turn away from Michael Crichton’s blockbuster Disclosure, a prominent succès de scandalein 1994. That bestseller had a Silicon Valley setting and the worst feminist stereotype of a manipulative corporate vixen using #MeToo–type accusations and other sexual wiles while pulling off big-money shenanigans in virtual reality. Whether today’s readers buy into Dustin’s hard sell of a techno-societal paradigm shift based on digi-smells, Arty’s story carries verisimilitude. This sympathetic hero copes not with high-speed chases but the challenges of raising an adolescent and dealing with an ex-husband who betrayed her. She also faces back-stabbing and chronic career devaluation (all the worse because her male boss and his smarmy pals seem truly unaware they are even doing it) and worries about a sick brother sinking lower and lower into the coils of Covid. “When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women; but if a woman is successful, people of both genders liked her less,” comments an observer of Arty’s plight. And, unlike Crichton, Dustin does not infuse the material with too many flourishes of STEM jargon. But there is an appendix with references to real-life incidents quoted in the text where scientific advances went awry. As for the double standards and unfair hands dealt to women, proof that it really happens is all too unnecessary.
An engaging, low-key, near-future techno-thriller with a strong hero battling sexism. (disclaimer, references)