Wynne Cantrell patted the lightweight helmet, switched the setting from Record to Play, and prepared to inspect her dream. Already, remembering, her excitement began to build. This one should make her agent grin his evil grin and rub his fingers together in the ageless gesture for counting money.
It was always strange, though, to relive her own dream without the specifics she had included. The helmets could record the ebb and flow of emotion with exquisite delicacy, but the capacity to capture full sensory detail remained out of reach. Instead of seeing her ex-lover, her customers would encounter a mysterious Other, imbued with the aura of forbidden fruit; they would find themselves in luxurious surroundings, but not necessarily the scarlet leather and shining dark wood of her dream decor. Where she had recreated specific implements and their various impacts, she could only be sure of conveying the surge of pain and pleasure intertwined, arousal and fulfillment.
Wynne is a performance artist who works in the medium of dreams. In the near future, technology has advanced to allow the recording and playback of certain brainwaves. Emotions and sensations can be shared, and for Wynne, this means her talent for lucid dreaming is a marketable commodity.
It sounds innocent enough, but Wynne’s is not the only use. Wyle imagines a full ecosystem of possible consequences: there’s an underground trade in illicit recordings; at the other end of the spectrum, the criminal justice system has found a way of legislating for the torture of criminals by forcing them to experience the torment inflicted on their victims. And although research on the topic is heavily suppressed at every turn, there are hints that more than raw emotion might be seeping through from the recordings.
All these threads come clashing together when Wynne is caught in a terrorist explosion, her suffering is recorded… and her husband, on his way to meet her, is apprehended and charged with mass murder. Arthur Kellic, the investigating officer, has a longstanding unrequited crush on Wynne, and is convinced that Hal arranged the whole thing with the goal of killing his wife. But although Hal is soon released, the damage has been done: he’s already been forced to experience his wife’s suffering. Meanwhile, the actual culprit is plotting to extend his reign of terror, in a number of scenes that we see from his twisted perspective, and it will fall to Arthur, Wynne, and Hal to stop him.
Although it’s the thriller plot that drives everything forward, the unfolding of Wynne and Hal’s relationship was one of the highlights of this novel. This isn’t a story of the first blush of love: these two have been married for years, and not entirely happily. Hal has been self-absorbed and neglectful; Wynne has already had an affair. But as the unintended effects of the punishment playback start to imbue Hal with additional empathy for his wife, they are able to start on a journey of mutual exploration and forgiveness. It’s just beautifully done.
There are added complexities in the form of Arthur’s unrequited longing for Wynne, especially when circumstances require Arthur and Hal to collaborate on a little off-the-books investigation. Watching the two men circle and eventually come to terms with one another was uncomfortable, but convincing.
Arthur’s assistant, Hannah, although a minor character for much of the book, was another of my favourites. She’s down to earth, practical, and a talented hacker who takes the steps that Arthur, in his naïvety, wouldn’t consider or countenance to guard his own back.
If you enjoy a well-imagined thesis on the implications of future technology, or a nuanced exploration of human relationships, or just a gripping techno-thriller, then Playback Effect is well worth a look.