April 22, 2017

The Amateurs - Liz Harmer

Knopf Canada, March 21, 2018.

Four Stars

In a world very similar to our own, the largest tech company in the world is PINA (with their logo being a stylized pineapple – remind you of any other companies?), and they have just released an astonishing new product called Port. It is a human-sized pod that offers space-time travel and is powered by nostalgia for the past and the desire to return there. Step inside the port with any time and location in mind, and Port will take you there.

But there is one downfall – Port was released with very little research done, and it was discovered too late that very few people will return from their journeys into the past. No one knows whether they have been swallowed into the fabric of time, or whether they simply do not wish to come back to the real world. And on top of these mysteries, it is soon discovered that the ports are seductive, and they adapt to the people around them with possible intelligence, convincing consumers to enter Port against their wishes. Before long, almost everyone is gone.

The few people that remain in our reality include a small group of hold-outs gathered together in an old church in an unidentified northeastern city. There are about forty people in the group that becomes more like a dysfunctional family, despite their differences. Most members of the group have lost someone to Port – including Marie, who is waiting hopefully for the return of her beloved ex-husband, Jason. She reminisces about their past together to anyone who will listen, despite the fact that he seems egotistical and generally awful. Even though Marie has resisted Port, she is still held prisoner by her nostalgia for an idealized past.

In a parallel storyline, we meet Brandon, head of public relations at PINA during the development, release and aftermath of Port. We learn about the enclave of PINA employees that have been holed up in California since the collapse of civilization as we know it, and see Brandon’s development as he gradually becomes disillusioned with his mentor, Albrecht Doors – the creator of PINA and mastermind behind Port. When Brandon finds out some devastating secrets about Port, he escapes from PINA headquarters and heads north-east to find his estranged mother. Along the way, his path collides with Marie.

The Amateurs reminded me a lot of Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, both in structure and tone. First the post-apocalyptic world is shown, and then the details of the Port technology are explained, and we see how the world as we know it came to be destroyed. The characters are realistic, shown with all their distinct, realistic faults. Despite living in a dystopian near-future, the people in Marie’s group still must deal with the everyday problems of self-doubt, romance, and generally getting along with each other. Their interactions are human and relatable, even at the end of the world.

The idea of Port is intriguing, especially as it extrapolates on how technology can seduce us into sacrificing reality for potentiality. The novel becomes a parable for the ways that our own modern society is disappearing into technology, and shows that even in our desperation to move forward into the future, we have a deep-rooted desire for the past. There is irony in the fact that a complex, futuristic technology is used to access the nostalgia for a simpler past, but it shows how we are unable to resist new and shiny toys, despite the risks. There are biblical undertones here too, underlined in the ending to the novel: “[E]very box, you opened. Every fruit, you ate. You wanted to know. Here you are: here is the story you need.” (Loc. 3903) If The Amateurs at the very least causes readers to question our unthinking acceptance of new technology and those who control it, then yes, it is the story we need.

I received this book from Knopf Canada and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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