Connect is an exciting work by a talented and bold writer.
A swirl of science fiction subgenres along with other, entirely different categories like erotic thriller and young adult romance, Irish author Julian Gough’s Connect plays out like a Michael Crichton novel with a rewrite performed by E.L. James. This is mostly a good thing. While some of the sexual bits are a bit clunky and though some scientific details are overexplained and others come out of nowhere, the work as a whole can be seen as either a surprisingly thoughtful techno-thriller or as a surprisingly technological and thrilling family drama. Regardless of how you look at it, Connect is a lot of fun.
The protagonist here is single mother and scientist Naomi Chiang. She’s a biologist in the not-too-distant-future, living and working in the Nevada desert while raising her son Colt, who seems to be on the autism spectrum. Colt spends most of his time in a Ready Player One-style virtual reality world, giving Naomi time to work on her paradigm-shifting biological research. However, when Colt sends her research out into the world, his father, Ryan—a shady fellow who runs a shady government agency and who is looking to implement some Orwell-by-way-of-Skynet techno security system to oversee the nation—catches their scent and the chase begins. It would all be very “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” which isn’t a bad thing, if not for the richness of the characters and their thoughts.
Naomi and Colt, despite both having some problematic aspects to their characterizations, feel vital and alive, and their concerns become those of the readers even when they make the wrong choices. Gough devotes a lot of time to developing them and their relationship with one another, and as a result, Connect really does become a dynamic examination of the single-mother-and-son relationship. Though the novel is futuristic (and this mostly comes about in snippets about appliances, food, transportation and communication), the examination of this human bond and how that bond is influenced by factors like phone use, a parent’s job, past traumas and medical conditions, feels incredibly current.
What does not feel current is Connect’s view of Naomi’s sex life or, at times, of Colt’s condition. Naomi is basically into BDSM, and after taking medication to repress her desires, she stops and comes back into her sexual freedom (which then includes being submissive, and the metaphor seems intentional). However, Naomi’s particular sexual interests are seen as a response to childhood trauma. Now, of course this sort of thing may actually happen, but given the amount of time describing Naomi’s body and sexual feelings, it feels, at times, a little exploitative. Also, many practitioners of BDSM do it in a considered way that comes from interest rather than trauma, and for Connect to take the Fifty Shades approach is a bit disappointing.
As for Colt, his place on the spectrum is pretty firmly established up front, only to be complicated later on in the novel as part of his romantic arc. While it is fantastic to see a lead character function in ways that seem genuine to his unique psychological and physiological disposition, having his autism portrayed as something to get over, repress or otherwise surmount is troublesome and isn’t handled with the care it probably needed.
Still, the sustained chase, as well as Naomi’s and Colt’s individual and shared arcs are simultaneously thrilling and thoughtful, in a way that recalls the best of Michael Crichton. Though some situations are resolved with a sort of technological magic-wand-waving, for the most part the concepts that come up are discussed at length and in interesting fashion. Overall, Connect is an exciting work by a talented and bold writer.