Review of Bandwidth
“Bandwidth” by Eliot Peper is his second science fiction novel. A follow up, of sorts, to 2016’s “Cumulus.” “Cumulus” even gets a one sentence mention early in the book, implying that they may exist in a shared universe. “Bandwidth” follows the story of Dag, a lobbyist (no, stay with me, don’t go!) on the path to…redemption? See, Dag has spent his adult life helping the movers and shakers, the captains of industry and the megacorporations, get their agendas enlivened and supported in the world. Frankly, it looks like, even in Dag’s reflection, to have mostly been a shitshow of exactly the kinds of things we fear that lobbyists do. For example, helping energy tycoons not only get access to cheap oil but to then also profit from rising sea levels and fires by getting their inland real estate empires approved. That said, it is clear that not everything that Dag has worked on has been horrible but it has all been a sort of realpolitik.
The book opens with a near death (by gunfire) experience by Dag and an encounter with something that forces him to question both what he’s doing with himself and also the nature of what is going on around him. Dag goes investigating to understand. One of the things that I enjoyed about this section is that it plays on expectations. We expect Dag to eventually solve his mystery, and he does, but then we find that the mystery neither has simple answers nor does it end there. “Bandwidth,” at a number of points, avoids taking the easy genre or thematic “outs” that are available and subverts or questions our expectations (and Dag’s). Is he an amoral power climber out for himself? Is he a somewhat broken man who has tried and failed to move on? Can anyone be as simple as one of these answers (or any other simple answer)? Peper manages to inject a fair amount of self-reflection and moral complexity into his characters. This is true not only for Dag but even for some of the “villains” of the book. Even the worst tycoon in this book is not simply a caricature but is given some evidence of personal complexity it.
The story is, itself, relatively well written as far as the plot goes. I wasn’t blown away by the overall arc but I was not let down by it either. Where I did feel the book shines is in the characterization of Dag, as our protagonist, and the questioning he goes through as events unfold around him. I found myself strongly identifying with a lot of the murky waters he finds himself in and his wonder of what it says about himself, the people to which he finds himself connected with, or even those he opposes. Peper does not have Dag offer easy answers either. It seems, in many ways, that the best we can do is simply…the best that we can do. Dag finds a certain amount of joy and peace in the book but no easy answers or solutions as well. It is this part of the book that I enjoyed the most as it seemed to me the most real, and certainly moreso than many science fiction novels that I read, which often have rather flat characterizations.
I also appreciated the the novel moves to center stage real world issues that we’re all living through right now: global warming, climate refugees, the subversion of democracy. In that regard, the world felt very real though, I must say, somewhat optimistic (even with half of California being a burned husk in it) since it is supposed to be an unknown number of decades in the future. As a technologist and hacker, I would have liked more detail in some of the technical issues or aspects raised in the book but I recognize that these can often detract from overall story.
I definitely recommend this book and I think it shows significant growth for Peper as an author from “Cumulus,” as much as I really enjoyed that book at well.
Note: I was given a pre-release copy of this book for the purposes of review. I am not so shallow that it destroys my ability to review the book, I hope.