It is forty years into the future and, following decades of research and trillions of euros spent on genetics, Europe is finally in a position to rejuvenate a human being. The first subject chosen for treatment is Jeff Baker, the creator of the Datasphere (which replaced the internet) and philanthropist extraordinaire. After eighteen months in a German medical facility, the seventy-eight-year-old patient returns home looking like a healthy twenty-year-old.
Misspent Youth follows the effect his reappearance has on his family and friends – his considerably younger ex-model wife Sue, his teenage son Tim, and his longterm pals, now themselves all pensioners, who start resenting what Jeff has become.
As I’ve often stated I’m not that well-read on the SF side of speculative fiction. Not having a hard science bone in my body, made me think I wouldn’t understand the science in Science Fiction, so I stayed safely on the Fantasy side of things. After discovering last year that actually I rather liked military SF and that not all SF equals scientific equations, I decided I was going to broaden my scope. Misspent Youth, the first book set in Hamilton’s Commonwealth Universe, is another step on that path. And I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed this jaunt down Science Fiction Road!
While there is most definitely an SF setting – the overarcing story of the EU, the separatists, and the development of technology which sets up for the rest of the Commonwealth Universe – this book is a human tale at heart. Its core plot deals with a father and a son and their struggle to connect again afer the intrusion of advanced (medical) technology in their lives. It’s about the psychological fall-out of the complete transformation that Jeff undergoes, not just physically, but mentally as well. And it’s also a classic story of growing up and gaining independence.
As might be surmised from the above description, Misspent Youth is largely character-driven and as such has a strong cast of protagonists. The four main viewpoints we get are Tim, Jeff, Annabelle and Sue, with here and there interspersed chapters from the viewpoints of secondary characters. Despite this, the characters at the heart of the book are Tim and Jeff. I liked Tim, he was just the right mix of sullen teen and adolescent with a good head on his shoulders. Though in my opinion, he got over some things perhaps a little too easily or at least he’s more forgiving than I would have been. One thing is certain though, Tim is required to grow up in record time and while he messes up at times, he ends up well. And seemingly even at peace with his father and what he has become. I, on the other hand, didn’t know what to make of Jeff. Perhaps following along the same path that Tim’s feelings run, I liked him at the start, but he just did so much wrong things, as Tim’s friends would say, it was really hard to keep liking him. Then again, it must be severely disturbing to go from old and physically creaking, back to the bloom of youth, while still remembering most of the eighty-odd years you’d lived before, so perhaps he should be cut some slack. It’s not just Tim who has growing up to do in this novel, his father has to regain his maturity as well.
On an ideas level, as a librarian, there was a lot that spoke to me. The idea of the Datasphere, the freely available information, is at once what we strive for, but it is also frightening to contemplate. As it is, with the advent of digitalisation of most academic journals and a lot of monographs, our work is slowly moving from providing access to information to more of a filtering and curating sort of position. We need to help our patrons sift through the information deluge and help them judge which information is relevant and trustworthy and which information is better discarded. Information literacy, including transliteracy, is becoming a larger and larger part of a librarian’s job, whether they actually teach it in a classroom or not. The Datasphere would increase this information deluge to an almost unnavigable torrent. Added to this is the far more explicitly expressed consequence (and perhaps danger) to the Arts: the deprofessionalization of the artist, be they writer, musician or visual artist, to the point that originality and quality are rare. It’s taking piracy to extreme, or rather it’s piracy legalised and accepted by society and content creators being forced to accept it as well. In a way it is today’s situation extrapolated, as even today musicians share their music online for free under a creative commons license and more and more self-published authors find their way to the public with the advent of ebooks. On the other hand, the free availability of information also provides opportunity of incredible scientific advancement, as the free sharing of research data allows scientists to cooperate and elaborate on each other’s results. Advocacy for Open Access publication of scientific publications and data sets in institutional repositories and the implementation of linked data are items that are on the agenda of many academic libraries today. The way Hamilton casually mentions things happening today, blew my mind, especially since the book was first published almost a decade ago.
Sue grinned. ‘It means you can avoid the mistakes which Tim and his friends are about to spend the next fifteen years making. You’ll enjoy yourself a hell of a lot more this time around.’ (p. 141)
In the end, Misspent Youth is a book that will stay with me both for the human story it tells and the barrage of ideas it launched at me and the questions it made me ask myself, not just regarding the world at large, but regarding the development of my professional field in particular. Whether Jeff is able to avoid the mistakes we all make growing up, as Sue suggests in the passage above, is doubtful, one thing that is sure is that he makes a whole bunch of new ones no one would have thought of before. How much fun he has this time around, is also debatable. What isn’t up for debate, however, is how much I enjoyed reading this thought-provoking book. The story is great and makes for a remarkably fast read. If you are looking for an accessible novel to get started in reading SF and don’t mind being challenged, I can’t recommend Misspent Youth high enough. Look out for reviews of Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained in the near future, as they’re already to be found on my TBR-pile and have moved up quite a bit after reading Misspent Youth. Maybe there is an SF reader hiding inside me after all…