Author: Julian Gough
Publisher: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
Publication Date: 14 August 2018
Review by Anelise Farris
Connect is a virtual-reality infused, sci-fi tale by Julian Gough–author of the Juno & Juliet books, as well as the end poem in the game Minecraft. Advertised as a book for fans of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and classic cyberpunk authors like William Gibson, I was eager to get my hands on it.
Here, Gough tells the story of Naomi, a brilliant scientist and single mother, and her son, Colt, a neurodivergent, gamer genius. Naomi spends her days working out of a lab in Nevada, while her homeschooled son Colt fills his hours playing virtual reality video games and sticking to his routine. Although it is never stated what Colt’s disability is, one can surmise from the attention given to Colt’s atypical character that he is more than likely on the spectrum. Consequently, when Colt discovers a theory that his mother is working on that might “correct” his brain, he jumps at the chance. And, when his Mom is away in NY at a conference presenting on said theory, he enlists himself as a test subject–even though it hasn’t yet been tested on animals.
From here, Connect becomes the story of a mother-son duo on the run. It turns out that the American government isn’t so keen about Naomi’s theory being leaked out into the world. The government is certain that this, essentially a regenerating device, is precisely what would put America on top. As often happens in such tales, Naomi is given a choice: come to work for the government (under her ex-husband, no less) and perfect this theory, or abandon all hope. Naomi, more concerned for her son’s well-being (especially after his self-induced surgery that did not go off without a hitch), becomes determined to do whatever necessary to maintain their freedom and keep them safe.
There’s a lot to like with this story, and the opening had me intrigued right away: a mother observing her son playing a VR game with equal parts curiosity and disgust. The third-person omniscient narrator used throughout Connect allowed me to immediately get to know Naomi and her son Colt. It was clear that Naomi was an anxious mother of a child with special needs. And this made her remarkably human and hard not to like. She came across as such a “real” character, and her flaws are perfectly balanced by her immense love for her son. Colt is also likeable. He is neither the stereotypical, one-dimensional autisic figure, nor is his condition made the central focus of the novel. It just is. And this is incredibly refreshing. Additionally, his desire to “correct” his brain comes across as in no way promoting an “all disabled people should be cured” narrative.
That said, I did take issue with a few elements of this book. One, Colt’s love interest never quite develops. It lingers on the fringes, and it seems like we go 100 pages or so before she shows up again. Either make her present or not. Personally, we could have done without her in my opinion. In that same vein, I think Connect could do with some self-editing. The action scenes are drawn out much longer than they need to be. Gough has given us a world with such fascinating characters that I found myself way more interested in their individual, ostensibly banal experiences–such as, Naomi trying to budget her money and find her hotel in NY, and Cole’s perspective on why liquid food (smoothies) is preferable.
Despite these minor complaints though, Connect is a deeply thoughtful book that is in conversation with new materialist philosophy, the science-religion divide, the ethics of drone warfare and animal testing, and human relationships–just to name a few of the subjects being examined here.
Verdict: Buy it.
If you are looking for a fast-paced, virtual-reality thriller (something more pulpy), this is not that. But don’t write it off by any means. Connect is a sci-fi novel that is showing that game worlds can be literary, too. The writing is simple yet lyrical, and it moves the story along gracefully. It’s a slow-burn, but in the best way possible.