Upload tells the story of Raymond Quan, the first human to upload his consciousness to the Internet. The first half of the novel relates events leading up to this moment, including his childhood spent in Chicago’s juvenile detention system. There, Raymond is increasingly drawn to custom-made virtual realities that offer him some semblance of control over his life. When he ages out of the system, he becomes a successful, if socially stunted, computer programmer. When the truth comes out about a grim crime he once committed, he decides to evade police and maintain his personal freedom by attempting to upload.
The Chicago and Michigan setting in roughly the year 2070 is notably under-described compared to Raymond’s virtual worlds. This seems a deliberate strategy on the part of the author to foreground the beauty and wonder of artificial reality. The stronger and more intellectually stimulating second half of the novel describes Raymond’s experiences after uploading.
Following a frantic, risky uploading process, which bears an uncomfortable resemblance to suicide, Raymond emerges into his self-created world as if reborn. But whatever dreams he may have had of exploring it in the manner of a god inspecting his own private Eden, he is soon dismayed. Instead, he encounters a land suspiciously altered by forces unknown, and he is strangely powerless in this world of his own making. Indeed, the second half of the novel reads almost like an eerie detective story as Raymond pursues criminals in the real world while untangling existential riddles.
Many unsettling philosophical questions arise in this novel: Which way is north, or up, for an uploaded consciousness? What rights should virtual animals or uploaded consciousness have online or in the real world? How do you tell the difference between a computer-generated being and an avatar operated by someone in the real world? What does it mean to make oneself infinitely copy-able at the digital level? Should one feel shame at virtual nudity? One of the more uncanny moments in the story involves a conversation between someone in the real world and an Internet-connected maid service bot, which stretches the limits of humanness even further.
Such questions enrich the narrative and make for a truly memorable story, despite a slightly flat heist sequence, thinly sketched supporting characters, and sometimes overly glib dialogue. Nevertheless, Upload is written in quick, clear prose. Many readers will appreciate the straightforward exploration of the experience of uploading, especially in contrast to Charles Stross’s novel on a similar topic, Accelerando, which buries the narrative and characters in socio-political jargon and confounding multi-national conspiracies. While not as “hard” as Stross’s novel, Upload should strike general readers as technologically persuasive enough, while leaving room for its appealingly sincere first-love story. In the end, complex technological and intellectual issues are balanced against a warm understanding of the basic need for real-world human interaction.
Chicago author Mark McClelland’s self-published novel has already found a band of admirers online, but it is certainly deserving of an even broader science fiction readership.
2012, self-published (Lulu)
$17, paperback, 279 pages
—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton
Read more about the author and the book.