Humanity is scattered throughout the moons of the solar system living in clouds of nanotechnology called the ‘fog.’ The secrets of the human body have been unraveled. The mind can be stored and transported like an mp3 file. Zee Prime, an AI created by humanity that has become our mother, lives in giant rings orbiting the sun.
There’s no privacy, and the actions of each man, woman, and child are judged by the race as a whole. Imagine if likes and dislikes on Facebook were the currency you lived by. Every decision made is done through the Anonymous network. Everyone votes, everyone knows. It’s the internet made into a physical utopia. And the Cthulu-like forces of entropy, fascism, racism, and sexism want nothing more than the spread despair and accelerate the heat death of the universe. This is the world W.B. Wemyss presents in Children of Athena.
The biggest strengths and weaknesses of this book stem from the fact that it presents an idea more than it tells a story. True, there is a narrative and there are characters, but they’re vehicles that allow certain ideas to interact with each other and make their points rather than engaging elements in and of themselves.
Also, at times it’s hard to follow the author’s train of thought, and there are several threads that don’t seem to fully develop by the end of the novel, but the idea itself being presented, a utopia created by limitless technology and the internet made physical reality, is absolutely fascinating. More, it’s a world that despite all of its whimsy is utterly believable, and it’s a world that I found myself wanting to live in.
The tense the author uses, present third person, might throw you at first, but Wemyss exercises enough restraint to keep it from overwhelming you. It’s unusual, but it’s well executed and worth the read.
As for the driving message of the book, the following lines sum it up best: “They use the word “Utopia” like it’s a lump of verbal excrement they have to taste every time they say it. Jordan always tells them that the Utopia is just the beginning of the journey. That the Utopia is Humanity pulling its collective pants on and being grown-up for the first time.” (quoting p. 487)
The two novels that provide the best comparisons are Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson. These comparisons aren’t based on the content of the novels so much as their presentation.
Atlas Shrugged is first and foremost a novel about an idea, and everything else is secondary. Characters are different aspects of that idea or its antithesis, and at times they give speeches that directly state what it is they believe and what you as the reader should be thinking about. It’s similar to how Christopher Nolan presented a lot of the dilemmas in his Batman movies. Wemyss does the same thing.
The story has more movement, and a lot of the big ideas whiz by without being belabored, but at times you’ll find yourself being bopped on the nose by them and struggling to empathize with characters you never have enough time with to truly form a connection. As I said, the characters are more moving parts than they are individuals, but even so there are moments were certain ones are almost as big as the ideas Wemyss explores.
The Diamond Age explores a world in which widespread nanotechnology changes the world. Again, it’s more about showing the ins and outs of the world, and the characters are just expressions of that rather than people you can really empathize with. The book is still fantastic, and I strongly recommend reading it, but the characters generally don’t induce the warm cuddle-shivers in you.
Children of Athena does the same thing, but I personally found the world more engaging. It doesn’t just show you how the world changes, it explicitly and believably demonstrates how our society could reach that point and what it would be like when it did. As strange as all that I’ve said may sound, if you’re the least bit immersed in internet culture and read this book, you will be able to imagine yourself in this world. You’ll start imaging who’d you’d be, what you’d do in the Utopia, how you’d treat other people. Wemyss goes beyond a technical world and creates one that lives and breathes in a way you rarely encounter.
Children of Athena is a happy nexus between a focus on strong ideas you know the author spits fire about and world building of the sort that speaks of an exceptionally creative, and perhaps a bit demented, mind.
The shorthand: if you enjoy the weird aspects of internet culture, memeing, mining through obscure webpages to find rare gems, or participation in the strange, frightening, and to some people liberating aspects of the online community (MMORPGs included), read this book. If you want a unique vision of the human race’s destiny, read this book. And if you want to read about a seven hundred year old mobster LARPing as Zeus and beating the crap out of Bacchus with a baseball bat, read this book. I give it a 5/5.
Get it here.