Book Review: Join, Steve Toutonghi (2016)

April 18th, 2016 7:00 am by mad mags

Quirky and thought-provoking, with a darkly humorous streak.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ebook for review though Edelweiss. Trigger warning for offensive language.)

That kind of intimacy among drives is mocked by solos. Before most solo resentment hardened into religious resistance, there was a famous sketch comedy show, Howard, Howard, Howard, Howard, Howard, Howard, and Howard, that parodied the closeness. The seven Howards would stand in a circle, five men and two women, picking one another’s noses.

“In the beginning,” Rope Three says, “when Join was first introduced, and for a long time after, I assumed we’d all join. That we’d all become one single individual. Can you imagine that? No more other.”

Set in a distant (?) future that’s both inconceivable and all-too-familiar, Join takes the “soul mate” concept to the next level through its innovative “join” technology. Individuals – the vast majority of whom have already had their brains hacked into and connected to the biowave network via implants called “caddys” – can choose to join with one another, creating a single consciousness that lives on even after the death of a member (“drive”). Joins often start out as pairs – i.e., married couples – who later join with younger “honeymooner” couples. As the various drives work and save for additional licensing fees, the join can continue to accumulate more drives, whether they choose to merge with existing joins or court more desirable “solos.”

However, twenty is the upper limit for joins; after this, the competing perspectives can cause disorders in the join, such as the rare but terrifying meme virus. Likewise, the join must be consensual throughout the procedure and recovery/integration period; if one of or more the drives changes her mind, it could cause a “flip” – a progressive and fatal disorder.

Chance is a join with five drives – the newest of which has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Though Javier Quispe will survive the death of his body – thanks to his join with Chance – as a recent solo, the prospect still scares him. Meanwhile, Chance’s best friend Leap is exhibiting alarming symptoms: mainly, violent tics of which she seems unaware and vehemently denies after the fact. Given that Chance Two and Leap Two pilot long-haul freighter ships together, this breakdown is no small concern.

Chance and Leap’s fates become inexorably intertwined after a chance (haha!) meeting with Rope, a mysterious and sullen join who seems to have more drives than allowed by the Directorate. Drives that he murders, one by one. Yet Rope might just know of a cure for Leap. The pair’s journey to find it will take them far away from their home in New Denver, to an underground society of “ferals” in Arcadia.

Join is an imaginative and unusual book, with a deliciously morbid sense of humor; it falls smack dab in my wheelhouse (scifi) but still feels fresh and new. While Chance is the MC, the join technology is really the star; its many implications and possibilities are enough to keep your head spinning for days: What happens when parents join with their children? Can a single consciousness safely house both a victim and her abuser? Does Join devalue human life by rendering individuals expendable? Wouldn’t Join just exacerbate inequality and poverty by allowing the rich and powerful to join with each other, thus concentrating their resources? How might the justice system penalize joins who break the law? What impact might this have on our planet, when those in power view everything as temporary and transcendent?

Because of this, I would’ve preferred that Toutonghi focused primarily on the tech and its personal ramifications for Chance and (especially) Leap, rather than launching into a more macro conspiracy plot involving the sinister Directorate (formed by a join of sorts between the US government and Vitalcorp, the company behind Join). Consequently, it sometimes feels as though the story’s all over the place.

It’s clear that Toutonghi is trying to make some Larger Points – about the nature of the self, the malleability of identity, and the necessity of mortality – but he often falls just short of the mark. He doesn’t do himself any favors by writing in the present tense, and his tone sometimes feels a little cold and clinical (maybe it’s all the tangents). Also, the naming scheme can make it terribly difficult to keep the myriad characters straight.

Even so, Join is still a page-turner that I’m likely to be thinking about for days and weeks to come. 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 stars where necessary.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! The book’s protagonist is a join named Chance. Chance is comprised of five members or “drives”; two of them are women, and three (or possibly four) are people of color:
Chance One, formerly known as Ashton, is a 40-year-old black man, the son of Reform Individualist (“solo”) parents. He’s a researcher/data analyst with a specialty in risk analysis and macro weather modeling.
Chance Two (Renee) is a white, middle-aged woman who’s employed as an airline pilot specializing in long-haul aviation. She and Ashton originally joined to create Rocket (presumably they were a married couple, as many new joins/joins of two are).
Chance Three (Jake) is a middle-aged man who works as a join doctor. His ethnicity is a bit of a mystery; he’s described as having dark hair, but that’s about it. His parents are named Angela and Sarawut, so it’s possible that he’s part Asian (Thai).
Chance Four (Shami-8) is a 38-year-old brown-skinned woman who’s skilled in carpentry and Jai Kido. A child of the “cloning” movement, she has genes from three+ people. Jake and Shami were previously joined to each other before joining with Rocket to create Chance.
Chance Five (Javier Quispe) is a college student who was born and raised on a mining base in the Andes. He is diagnosed with terminal cancer six months after joining Chance.

Leap is Chance’s best friend and another major player in the story. Leap also has five drives, two men and three women, only one of which is a person of color. Leap Four is a young Japanese woman named Himiko. Her uncle Tomohiro worked as the master gardener for Josette, Leap Five and mother of Ian, Leap One. (Tomohiro ends up having a rather significant storyline, which is only revealed near the end of the book.) Aurora, Leap Two, trained alongside Chance Two and also works as an airline pilot. Josette decided to join with Leap only after she was diagnosed with an advanced, degenerative autoimmune disease and was faced with the possibility of death. Now, Leap is suffering from a “flip” – a fatal reaction to the join process that’s triggered when one or more of the drives changes her mind, post-procedure.

Hamish Lyons, a pioneer in join technology and one of the few (only?) joins to successfully separate, is a tall, white-haired black man. “Hamish” is actually a join consisting of Hamish Lyons, Derek Okoro, Qi Wei, Marina DelThomaso, and Duff Berjer. Chance and Leap seek Hamish’s help in curing Leap.

When Chance and Leap travel to Arcadia, their driver’s name is Don Kim; he’s married to Elicia, a “tall black woman.” They also meet Marco, “a medium-height black man” and Emily, “a frail-looking olive-skinned woman.” These characters only have small bits in the story.

Animal-friendly elements: Leap Two offers to cook Chance a tofu scramble but ultimately makes her eggs. WTF!


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