OCT. 5, 2014
By JANET MASLIN
“Spark” is an even better introduction to the abundant dystopian talents of John Twelve Hawks than “The Traveler” was, maybe because it’s less gimmicky and does not include a heroic breed of fighters called Harlequins. And maybe because Mr. Twelve Hawks (probably not his real name) has become a much better writer since “The Traveler” kicked off an elaborate Orwellian trilogy that, thrillingly as it began, eventually bogged down in subplots and digressions.
Clearly exhilarated by the fresh start that “Spark” affords him, this author creates a much simpler premise that forges a breathless action plot out of many of the ideological tenets of the “Traveler” books. Its main character thinks of himself as a Spark inside a Shell since undergoing a drastic Transformation. Translation: He had a bad motorcycle accident and believes that even though his body can still walk and talk, he is in fact dead. His idea of a good time is to nail a stake to the floor, attach himself to that stake by a string and walk in perfect circles.
No, that’s not the exciting part of “Spark.” And neither are any of the traits that put our hero (who goes unnamed as he narrates most of the book) in the realm of high-functioning autism. He hates being touched. He experiences no emotional responses other than curiosity, boredom and disgust. He has programmed his phone with photographs of 80 faces, each one signifying a different human response, like joy or pain or fear, so that he can tell what reaction he is eliciting in others. He has the perfect job qualifications for a hit man, and that’s the occupation he has fallen into.
So when we first meet him, he is at a stakeout in Brooklyn, watching a Russian businessman named Peter Stetsko park his car. “Look right. Look left. No one was in the street. I walked over to the car, held up the phone, and compared Stetsko’s photograph to the reality in front of me,” he tells us. “Then I raised my weapon and shot reality in the head.”
As in earlier books by Mr. Twelve Hawks, this protagonist lives in an ominous, technology-dominated world where machines aid or spy on all aspects of life. Sometimes, they can do both, and the few free souls left in society fear that a takeover by artificial intelligence isn’t far away.
There are “bash mobs” and Luddite gangs that arise to rebel against the forces of technology, spying and totalitarianism, freedom fighters who like nothing more than stomping on the equivalent of Google Glass. Mr. Twelve Hawks, who has become famous for his anonymity, publishes treatises on these matters at wespeakforfreedom.com, which is embraced by the good guys in this book’s plot.
At first, we follow the hit man around the globe as he goes from assignment to assignment, describing the physical experience of being an automaton in the spooky new world. It is a dystopia in which money buys everything, especially youth; the main markers for the poor are now signs of aging even more than signs of starvation. The hit man observes all this unquestioningly and takes his orders from a woman he knows mostly long distance. Since he is exceptionally crafty at executing these jobs, part of the fun is in watching him improvise. One very worthwhile detour involves his taking voice coaching to acquire a lower-class British accent so he can pose as a workman to get onto an estate outside London by claiming to be a delivery man for something called Jolly Good Fellows. What corrupt mogul would say no to that?
The woman who coaches him has a beloved dog. And dogs turn out to be the hit man’s first soft spot. He rates them highest on the pyramid of life-forms, and his archenemy is a fellow hit man whom he once caught savagely torturing a canine victim. This, like every bread crumb Mr. Twelve Hawks drops during the course of this story, will come to matter greatly.
Midway through the book, it becomes apparent that the main character — who is beginning to think of himself as Jake, his pre-accident name — is regaining his humanity. That Spark is beginning to catch fire. It’s possible to pinpoint the moments in the story when his amorality is pushed too far, or the man inside him is actually moved, or he just tastes something that has flavor; one way or another, the robotic killer begins to think about what he’s doing. Because this man was always very, very smart, the part of the book that puts his brain to full use truly gallops.
Mr. Twelve Hawks sets up the battles in “Spark” as more than simple combat. His appeal lies in his pairing of one system of belief against another and letting them duke it out. There is someone here who tries to justify actions with this: “Everything that goes on in the universe is a physical process that involves boson particles that have an integer spin such as one or two, and fermion particles that have odd, half-integer spins.” By everything, this person means everything. Whoever is on the other side of the argument must hear it out and can’t dismiss it out of hand.
And how many dystopian thrillers give René Descartes a significant role? Descartes’s “Cogito, ergo sum” comes up repeatedly as a matter of crucial important in a world where artificial intelligence grows more powerful every day. Does the fact that a computer thinks means that it exists? Think you can answer that easily? Not so fast: John Twelve Hawks would like to spend a lot of “Spark” mulling that over with you.
The book’s cover art is unusually intricate. Here’s why: The artist is Michael J. Windsor, whose credits include “The Da Vinci Code” and other work by Dan Brown.
By John Twelve Hawks