Review: Change Agent

Technology will move beyond silicon.

That’s hard to see now: we’re in the midst of smartphones and omnipresent screens and Internet-connected everything, all around us. But it feels like there’s a natural limit to how much silicon chips and metal and glass can provide as ingredients to human interfaces; the next logical step is to tap directly into our biological interfaces and just activate the right neurons. The biohacking movement is an early attempt to explore ways to make this happen.

Change Agent is a sci-fi novel that posits this future, some 20–30 years down the line when Silicon Valley loses its relevance because the most exciting biological developments are happening in Southeast Asia due to lax regulations on genetics. In its world, though, biology is not only where the technological frontier moves to, but does so at times to replace the tech. we have today; it’s easier to grow a car via setting up the right DNA than to construct one out of metal and labor. Only the poor and outlawed are relegated to using touchscreens.

The plot starts on the obvious ethical dilemmas of modifying the building blocks of life, imagining a dystopic future where rich and affluent are able to compound their advantages in life—literally—by designing their family trees to be genetically superior. It’s striking to see how such developments, and their societal reactions, contrast with our current fears of automation and rogue AIs. On a primal level, we hold life and sentience on a different level than that of automatons and robots, and I found myself reacting with revulsion on some of its descriptions, likely as the author intended.

Compared to the other sci-fi I’ve read this year, I like that Change Agent imagines a very different world. Its style is decidedly noir and grungy1, and touches more on the darker side of technological development. That said, this seems to be consistent with the set of running themes with sci-fi that focuses on genetics and biology: a bifurcation of society based on genetic superiority; proliferation of drugs and futuristic paraphernalia enhancing biological highs; inevitable “crimes against nature” experiments that mutate life for the sake of profits. Change Agent doesn’t go too far beyond these tropes, but I still found it refreshing, likely because this sub-genre of sci-fi is markedly different in thematic focus and tone compared to computers and space.

  1. A bit like United States of Japan, but handled with much more tact here.

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