The Internet of Brains: Join, by Steve Toutonghi

Steve Toutonghi’s Join is the story of a person named Chance who, on the day they find out they have cancer, meets a man that has discovered the secret to immortality. The catch is this: Chance—and this immortal named Rope, and much of the rest of humanity—is not just one person, but multiple persons combined into a singular self. Forty years ago, Vitalcorp released the revolutionary technology Join, which allows individuals to link to one another and live multiple lives simultaneously. A single consciousness—a union of personalities and memories and skills—can pilot as many bodies (or “drives”) as have linked to the join. Already, Rope tells Chance, they are immortal; just because one body dies, doesn’t mean that their memories or their essential selves will perish too. But when Rope begins to join more and more bodies to experiment with killing them off, Chance is taken beyond mere pondering of moral philosophy; their embroilment with Rope will take them all the way to the inventors of the join technology to the fringes of society, where individuals still wander the ravaged, weather-torn earth.

Join is a conceptual powerhouse, tapping into the core of our contemporary debates about technology. As Chance and their best friend Leap journey, first to cure themselves, and then for answers, Join explores the ways that our obsession with tech reflects a certain kind of self-obsession, one that bypasses social inequality and environmental concerns. It questions the progressively-more-pressing question of connected consciousness, the erasure of the individual, and ultimately what it means to have a “self” at all.

[Warning: Unapologetic Sense8 comparisons ahead]

The premise of Join is, of course, similar to the Wachowski sisters’ 2015 Netflix series, Sense8: minds and lives are linked, individuals become a collective, and the nature of the soul and the self is thrown into confusion. I was initially hesitant to draw on this comparison—I can only imagine Toutonghi’s frustration when the series hit the screen, and I wanted to give Join a chance in its own right—but nonetheless, it’s a fruitful comparison to make for two reasons. The first is that I don’t think that Sense8 and Join will be the last of their kind. We are rapidly becoming more connected to one another and to technology, and the Internet of Things has become a hot topic in and out of tech circles. The face of the singularity is not just present but shifting in real-time with our technological advances, and is making older sci-fi on the topic feel a bit less prescient. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that networks will be to the 2010s what cyberspace was to the 1980s, but it’s a rich and wide-ranging topic that is very much of-the-moment, and I’ll be settling in for more fictional explorations of it.

The cast of Sense8

The cast of Sense8

The second reason I’m powering through this comparison is that my opinions on Sense8 and Join are largely inverse. What I loved about Sense8 was it’s characters and their bizarre but profound relationships with one another. Its concept, however, is malnourished, never quite teasing out the implications of networked souls beyond the individuals helping one another in times of trouble (the show’s other problem is the tokenization/flattening of non-western stories—but that is a whole other essay, as is Join’s similar tendency to flatten the lived experience of racial and gendered identity). Join is essentially the opposite—Despite being conceptually rich and ambitious, its characters by-and-large fell flat, and I didn’t feel the same emotional connection to the novel that I did to Sense8. The plot kept me reading, of course, because the unfurling of Toutonghi’s world was so strange and so unrelatable that I was glued to the prospect of discovering it. But much of the staying power is lost now that I’m finished, and despite the tantalizing threads left with the novel’s ending, I’m not terribly invested in seeing any of the characters again. Some of this, I recognize, it just due to medium: Sense8 has a huge leg-up as a visual medium because it can do a great deal of expositional and emotional work without dedicating too much space or time to it. Not only that, but some of its problems can be addressed over time due to its long-term, serialized format. Perhaps Join’s failure to capture my heart is because it is just one story, when it should have been many.

The novel’s first person narration adds a sense of urgency to its prose, making the technology of Join feel even more present in the reader’s everyday life. However, Join is, at the end of the day, 75% exposition, and 25% plot and character. Though it is fast-paced and even delightfully noir-ish at points, most of its narrative energy goes into explaining the world and the last forty years of its history. Characters like Chance and Leap, despite being consistently present, are so laden down with their multiple histories and viewpoints, that my concern for their wellbeing gets lost; and while one can say this is a narrative trick to mimic the act of joining, I’d still prefer to care whether or not my protagonist lives or dies. With an ending chapter that contains more action, revelation, and displays of character agency than the rest of the book combined, it’s difficult not to imagine What Could Have Been if the whole novel had been executed in the same manner.

Still, for all my complaints about this book, the questions it asks are compelling, and I don’t regret reading it. The connection between morality and mortality is not a theme I encounter often enough outside of  vampire novels and critical theory. I only wish that Toutonghi and I could have explored them with more emotional depth.

Join is available now from Soho Press.

Emily Nordling is a librarian and perpetual student in Chicago, IL.

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