Book Review: The Second Lives of Honest Men by John R. Cameron
Professor Jacob Wentworth is the last of his kind, the only humanities professor at the university. With his retirement at the end of the year, the humanities department will officially be closed. But when the university’s star genius student, Bryce, takes a liking for Jacob and what he can teach him, Jacob stays on indefinitely. Jacob has refused to ever use the Interface directly. He won’t put in the contacts or earbuds that open up a whole virtual world. He doesn’t want to give the Company that much control over his life. In spite of his tutelage, years later Bryce is working on improving the Interface, making it into a brain implant instead of contacts. But Bryce’s connection with Jacob has done something to him, and he finds himself distracted by building a time machine and not wanting to help the Company anymore. Together they decide to bring Abraham Lincoln to the present, replacing him with a double just moments before his death. Maybe it will take a man out of time to save the future.
When this book was submitted to me during my annual review copy open submissions, I was immediately intrigued by the combination of a dystopian future with time-travel and history. Cameron’s story didn’t disappoint. The book gives a unique flair to the concept of fighting an overpowering dystopian government with the addition of time-travel and a historical figure that makes it engaging and highly readable.
The futuristic setting is both well-imagined and evoked in a non-intrusive, showing not telling way. It is easy to relate to Jacob immediately on his walk to work, and the futuristic elements are introduced gradually. It helps that Jacob is a bit of a luddite, as it gives him a bit of an outsider’s perspective to describe things to the reader. The futuristic tech described in the book is well-imagined. High tech contact lenses are definitely the wave of the future, and jumping from that to a neural interface makes total sense. Cameron also takes into account other elements of the future beyond the science, such as climate, politics, and trends. It’s a fun world to visit in spite of it being a dystopia.
Jacob and Bryce start out a bit two-dimensional but grow to be three-dimensional over the course of the story. The addition of the female biologist who assists them manages to add both diversity and a romance, which is nice. She also much more quickly takes on a three-dimensional quality. Having her and the romance around really kick the whole story up a notch. Abraham Lincoln was probably the most difficult character to handle, since he is obviously based on a real person. He is presented respectfully, yet still as a flawed human being. When he speaks, his words are accessible yet sound just different enough to provide the reader with the consistent cue that he is a man out of time.
The plot mostly works well, moving in a logical, well thought-out manner. The end has a bit of a deus ex machina that is rather disappointing.
A main character is saved from death via time travel, thus making all of the main character “good guys” survive the battle with the Company. Stories about battles of one ideal against another are generally better if at least some casualties are had. I do not count a minor secondary character who dies, since that is akin to killing off a red shirt in Star Trek.
Some readers may be bothered by the level of anti-tech found in the book. The Interface isn’t just bad because the new neural version will give the Company control over people. It also is bad because it supposedly inhibits the development of the users’ brains, rendering them to an elementary level of intelligence. The book also strongly argues the idea that friends in virtual reality aren’t real friends, and that old tech, such as print books, are better. Even television is lauded as better than any virtual reality activity. I’m fine with not agreeing 100% with the protagonists in a story. It’s not necessary for me to enjoy it, and I appreciate seeing their perspective and the freedom fight that follows. However, this perspective may bother some readers, so they should be aware it exists within the story.
Overall, this is a well-written, original take on the idea of fighting a dystopian future with an advisor ripped out of time. The book is weakened a bit by a deus ex machina ending. Some readers may not like or enjoy the anti-tech position of the protagonists. It is still a fun frolic through a richly imagined possible future. Recommended to fans of dystopian scifi and US History.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review