When Eleanor “Ellie” Nickerson invents Sensations, she’s not entirely sure how she did it. The code and hardware can record someone’s lived experience and be “played back” for another human being in perfect fidelity. Dancing, drug-use, torture, and (of course) sex can be recorded and then experienced by someone else as if they themselves were engaged in the activity. Ellie sees nothing but potential for healing and elevating humanity, so she assembles a team of driven professionals to help her monetize Sensations and achieve her vision of a better world. But almost immediately the U.S. government attempts to pressure her into giving it control over this powerful technology, hinting that it might be made a state secret. Ellie’s next move is shocking and destabilizing: She releases the technology to the public, allowing anyone to use her code while retaining ultimate control over it. Her company remains profitable because it sets the standard—and because it has Ellie.
But the genie’s out of the bottle now, and unsavory elements immediately begin recording disturbing experiences, from torture to violent sexual assaults to drug abuse, inspiring a whole new wave of addiction as people become hooked on someone else’s experiences. When Russian gangster Dema Zlovich Sokolov finds he can’t upgrade his illegal Sensations technology without Ellie, he tries to force her to improve his system—and she has to use her intimate knowledge of her own technology to avoid danger.
Kevin Byrne moves the story in SENSATIONS along at a brisk but thoughtful pace, exploring the unexpected possibilities of the Sensations tech. While we’ve seen the fundamental concept before (most notably in the film Strange Days), Byrne digs into the geopolitical and societal ramifications of being able to experience someone else’s physical and emotional life. His focus on Ellie gives both the invention and its use a pulsing human heart, and her commitment to her vision for the world makes her experiences affecting and eventual fate exhilarating. The story is agreeably complex and mature without becoming confusing, in part because of this focus on Ellie and her relatively straightforward desires.
Overall this story is exciting and surprising, but Byrne makes the odd decision to deal with Ellie’s major antagonist long before the end, and without Ellie’s direct involvement. This makes the last part of the novel feel like an extended epilogue, and robs it of emotional impact. With some adjustments to these pacing decisions, Byrne would have a much more compelling final stretch.
Readers looking for a smart, surprising, sci-fi-tinged thriller with something to say will find much to love in Kevin Byrne’s SENSATIONS.
~Jeff Somers for IndieReader