Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How to take your brain on vacation without drilling holes in your head

Ah, summertime.

Time to kick back with a tall glass of iced tea, go out back to sit in the fresh bright air, and actually read a book.

Just for the fun of reading.

Or maybe you’re planning to do your reading on a beach. Or, perhaps, on that flight as it takes you to a more distant beach.

Wherever, whether near or far, reading a book is a perfect way to give your brain a nice vacation from the rat race.

And you don’t even have to drill holes in your head!

Unlike a couple of characters did in the new book from prolific author Ted Dekker.

A story sandwich

Hacker opens with Nyah Parks, assisted by her friend Pixel, attempting a ridiculously risky on-site hack at the ominous megalithic data farm, BlakBox. Things go quickly awry and she realizes she’s in far deeper than she could have anticipated. BlakBox is, of course, more than an innocent IT company.

Nyah is a 17-year-old precocious, Q-doodling, tech-savvy, hacking genius who goes through hell and back over three days.Or, at least, somewhere and back.

Her motives for the hack are pure. She merely wants to expose the company’s vulnerabilities and get hired as a consultant, something she’s done before. She needs a cool $250K to get her mother into a special medical program. She already has $101,243.12 which isn’t bad for a 17-year-old.

Two years prior, her family was in a severe auto accident that killed her dad and brother, and left her mother severely incapacitated with head injuries. Nyah survived bearing a scar on her head and survivor’s guilt, among other things, gnawing at her heart.

Just before being nabbed by BlakBox, Nyah texts an SOS to an FBI friend who comes to her rescue.

Nyah’s run-in with BlakBox and subsequent evasion of the FBI sandwiches the heart of the story.

Cornered, with BlakBox and the FBI looking for her -- each for very different reasons -- Nyah seeks out an old friend, 20-year-old Austin Hartt. Austin is another computer geek genius.

He is a reclusive former millionaire suffering from terminal brain cancer. He and Nyah were close until he cut-off contact months earlier. She learns he’s been on a very weird quest to hack his own brain as he searches for a cure.

Austin explains how he once had a sort of near-death out-of-body experience where he encountered a character called Outlaw. He’s now obsessed with breaking through layers of reality to renew contact with the shadowy character.

Austin’s obsession is fueled by cases of others with various life-threatening ailments who had similar experiences as his, but with a different result -- they were cured. For some unclear reason, Austin wasn’t.

In order to literally hack his brain to facilitate his neural-spiritual journey, Austin has gone so far as to drill holes in his skull, with the help of a bribed medical technician, through which he connects his brain to his computer while he floats in a sensory deprivation chamber.

Austin explains to Nyah why he’s doing what’s he’s doing and what he’s discovered so far. He then convinces her to experiment with him, traveling inward, yet outward, through the immaterial into spiritual realms, searching for Outlaw and answers.

Nyah agrees seeing a chance for finding a cure for her mother. She cuts off her hair, shaves her scalp, lets Austin drill holes in her head, and they “trip” in side-by-side deprivation tanks. The bulk of the book centers on their experiences.

Eventually, the story returns to the drama with BlakBox and the FBI. It ends with the loss of several characters in the story but with Nyah reaching a level of peace and self-awareness that had been elusive for her.

She faces an open-ended future with new hope.

A little of this, a little of that

Hacker is the third in the YA (young adult) series of “The Outlaw Chronicles” that Dekker first released only in e-book format in 2012. To satisfy his fans who want print books, in 2013 Dekker inked a special deal with Worthy Publishing which released the three titles in January, March, and June of this year.

If you haven’t read the other titles in the “series,” or, even if you’ve not read any of Dekker’s 30 or so books, don’t worry. You won’t be lost. Hacker is a self-contained story with a reasonably satisfying conclusion.

Combine a portion of “The Matrix” with some “Inception,” season with a dash of “Altered States” and “Sneakers,” maybe a tiny hint of “Tron,” and a pinch of “24,” then drain off all the foul language and other naughty bits, and you’ve got a sense of what Hacker is and is not.

While Dekker is an author who is a self-professed Christian, this book is not explicitly a Christian story. And it’s not just for the YA audience. As another recent wildly popular YA novel featuring a young couple in an entirely different situation has shown, grown-ups are free to read YA books without shame.

The story moves at a fairly quick pace. However, the middle stretch detailing Austin’s and Nyah’s out-of-body trips left me a little impatient to get back to what was happening outside Austin’s hideaway with BlakBox and the FBI. For a long stretch that part of the story disappears.

Overall, fans of Dekker will be thrilled and newbies to his books will likely be interested in reading more.

Dekker is more than just dark

Dekker is an interesting figure. Given his Christian background -- I was surprised to learn that we both graduated from Evangel University, he about ten years or so after me -- he’s not your typical Christian author.

He doesn’t hide his heritage either.

Nearly every online and cover bio references that he is an MK (missionary kid), as well as mentioning his claims of seeing a “fair share of true-life horror.” This from living in a country populated by cannibals who killed and ate missionaries who worked with his parents. He characterizes this time saying, “You were at threat of losing your life at any moment.”

The darkness of his experience feeds into his books.

But, as he insisted in at least one interview, redemption is also a strong theme in his stories. Hacker is an example.

Dekker is a good writer. He knows how to craft a decent sentence and shape a good story arc.

While his plots are reasonably sophisticated, Hacker and his other books should be accessible to most readers. This is obvious given that he already has thousands, if not millions, of loyal fans.

Slightly twisted theology

My one mild concern with the book, given that Dekker is viewed as a Christian writer and many will be looking for relevant themes twined into his stories, is that he leans a little toward a semi-Gnosticism or Docetism in Hacker.

There is a strong push against the value of knowledge. Added to this is an elevating of the spiritual while practically demonizing the material.

In other words, mystery trumps knowledge and the immaterial is good while the material created world is bad.

For Christians, knowledge, coupled with wisdom, is desirable for living a godly life. And everything that God created, which is very real, is good even though in a fallen state.

Neither is to be rejected or subsumed, but viewed within biblical parameters.

Dekker’s storyline and characters, particularly Austin, strongly imply that to achieve connection to a higher spiritual power requires letting completely go of knowledge and the material.

Or, I could just be reading too much into it. You can decide for yourself when you read the book.

Hacker is a clean, quick moving book, perfect for reading on the beach or a flight or wherever you prefer to read.

Don't be afraid to dive in, drill down, and enjoy the trip.

Additional resources:

NOTE: To comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255): I selected these books to review and received them free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Are you a Dekker fan? What do you think of his books? Do some dip too far into the horror genre? Do you think he’s really a Christian writer? Sound off and share your thoughts in the comments!

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