Echoes of Another is a cyberpunk novel that follows the exploits of seven different people across near-future Toronto, Canada. The book asks: what if there was an implant that let one replay mental and emotional states?
Or rather, it asks that question eventually. The first part of the book is spent introducing the characters and building future-Toronto into a lived-in place. This is a risky move for the story’s structure and pacing, but the story pulls it off. Though it’s not a comical book, the novel’s way into characterisation is similar to that of a sitcom: start with broad strokes to get the reader hooked, then add the finer details later. Ray is on his way to a job interview that would change everything for him when a mysterious drone hospitalises him; Nerdy Kel is an obsessive scientist who loves her animal studies, but someone’s been meddling with them; Seth is a self-confessedly pretentious novelist struggling to hit the big time; and so forth. Then we find out a bit more: Ray was treated badly by his family and is shackled by poverty, Kel is a savant who doesn’t see the value of connecting to people, and Seth feels ignored and taken for granted by his huge, boisterous family. And on it goes.
So it’s not confusing to keep track of all the different characters, and the chapters are so short and snappy that proceedings never get bogged down. This is good, because there are plenty of similar stories that attempt a similar structure—but to a dizzying, dull effect (a recent example from a very different genre is Netflix’s White Lines). Here, by the time Kel has the idea for the implant, the reader instead has a strong grasp on the world and its populace.
Beyond all this, the book is largely concerned with what humanity can do that technology cannot. Seth, for example, is very worried about art. His books aren’t doing nearly as well as the romance novels, literally generated by algorithm, that dominate the best-seller charts. He refuses to use those algorithms in his writing, but there’s a kind of hypocrisy to that; he uses plenty of tech aids for other things, like obsessive upkeep of his appearance.
We’re shown a steadier point of view with Maura, the head of a VR company, EduTain. Her entrepreneurial mind recognises that humans are much better at pattern recognition than any chipset: people are smart in a way computers will never be. The book generally expects us to agree with her. Although she, like Kel, gives too much of herself to her work and not enough to forming friendships, she remains kind and intelligent and not at all like those other CEOs and snobby rich people. Bad rich people use offshore accounts. Good rich people like Maura buy one (huge) house “for pennies on the dollar at auction” and put their wealth to good use: “sponsoring scientific studies, helping to fund the planned Mars expedition, or even reforesting the southwest portion of the province.”
An early chapter sees Maura take down a couple of activists trying to secretly record her at a party and therefore goad a reaction; apparently, those activists don’t care about the issues and just want online views. It’s as if Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada had a nice twin—or a better agent. It’s hard to resist Maura’s charm, but it might be good to try. Still, she makes points: the problem is how people use the tech rather than the tech itself. In a story that deals with the adverse effects of technology, it’s always a relief when it shows a clear understanding that the problem is human lust for power.
The book also has a great imagination for how people could use and abuse that all-important implant. Kel’s original idea is that it could replicate a state of flow to make people more productive. Unfortunately, in her naïveté, she doesn’t consider how people might use the implant for selfish reasons. Really, she doesn’t think about other people at all. And she doesn’t think to put in any safeguards until it’s too late. When a shadowy figure attacks her and steals the prototype implant, it’s quickly replicated and spread throughout Toronto. We start to see the wide range of creative uses and consequences to which such a device might be put: it makes a killing in the adult industry, a corny start-up tries to sell the premium meditation of Tibetan monks, and extended use causes people serious harm.
Seth uses the implant approximately for its intended purpose of upping productivity, although this apparently includes asking his computer to “[read] out his favourite poems, the elegiac lines pumping directly into his ears at double speed, priming his brain for lyricism.” Siri, show me the worst way to experience the written word. (To be clear, the book seems to be in on the joke.) He carries on like this for a couple of days, writes three-quarters of a novel, then collapses.
Not all of the characters and storylines completely work. Haroon’s dream of joining the police doesn’t exactly seem timely, and his romance with Saja is weirdly wooden. He lives in a dodgy, working-class, crime-ridden area called J-District, which sees the worldbuilding at its weakest; it’s basically a weird mish-mash of racial coding and gangster-genre mimicry. Ray (our interviewee who gets blown up) also wants to escape the J-District, but his pursuit of the man who sent out the drone lands him unhappily in the service of mobsters. The fall-from-grace plot that follows is often overly broad; we regret to inform you that one character says, “Nothing personal, just part of the business.” But it picks up when the baddies think of a gruesome, unsettling use for the implant.
Elsewhere in Toronto, Meike is at once the best and worst character. She has the least chapters by some distance, and her story just sort of stops with little in the way of a resolution. For the latter half of the book, she’s barely present. But there’s something fascinating about her numbed-out thrill-seeking. She goes to a J-District bar, where patrons wear their body-mods loud and proud; this is where they get mods that aren’t strictly legal or government-reviewed. She pays a strange woman to put electrodes all around her body, in full view of everyone, to give her an implicitly sexual high that knocks her to the floor. Acts like this, as well as a string of one-night stands (she seems to talk to any man for no more than ten seconds if they have just finished having sex), are the extent of everything she ever feels. Like a drug addiction, she seeks out money because she craves more “feeling.” This is the strongest part of the book. It’s un-showy, pragmatic prose, but it evokes the unpleasant physicality.
The point of the book is exploring the effect of the implant but luxuriating in the setting is a close second. There are plenty of interesting and entertaining little details peppered in all the way to the end. For example, almost all meat in this world is factory-grown. Real meat is a gaudy class signifier. The first time that working-class Ray has to choke down a real steak, he’s disgusted by the idea that he’s eating something that used to be a real animal. There are also various fake future brands, as you’d expect. Pleasingly, there are some real-world names that apparently survive a few more decades, like the King’s Quest video games.
Games come up a fair bit, in fact, which makes sense in a story about simulated experiences. Maura’s VR company has a big stake in the industry. When Seth has to take a day job to make some cash, he works as a “farmer”—he plays the early stages of a VR MMO called Dragon Slayer, doing the dull work of grinding character stats for players who can afford his services. The Dragon Slayer world is navigated by putting on a high-tech suit and running around on a treadmill. When he sits in a fantasy tavern, the suit braces to let him sit in real life. And when he flees a dragon, he has to do a lot of actual running.
This section really nails the specificities of how games can be annoying, like experienced players ganging up on novice spawn points for easy XP. After many unfortunate encounters with angry mages, Seth is excited to try out the class for himself, but he despairs when it turns out that low-level mages only land 30% of their attacks; no wonder mage players are so vindictive. When someone talks to him in full LARP mode, he’s too exhausted (and generally un-nerdy) to play along. The whole game is an interesting, fleshed-out idea and a funny diversion; after all, this isn’t a novel where you’d expect a dragon to pop up in any capacity.
As with the rest of this book, however, the game’s various endings are a little frustrating. Throughout, some characters get a good send-off, but most of them feel dissatisfying or outright rushed. And yet Echoes of Another doesn’t deserve too bad of a kicking: the implant is a great idea that’s comprehensively and creatively followed through on, and it’s nice to spend time with the charming characters as they knock around their vibrant world. Take this novel and plug it in sometime.