Martin Rowe reviews The Sensory Deception, a techno-thriller by Ransom Stephens.
Ransom Stephens has combined his knowledge of physics, electronics, and business; his Measure of Things writings; and a few other topics into a book that takes you into the depths of the oceans, forests, and people.
The Sensory Deception is the story of three environmentally aware men who develop a virtual reality machine that's so real, it puts you right in the place of an animal or even a person. In fact, the experience overloads the senses. You respond by instinct the way an animal does, because there is no time to process the information -- hence the deception.
I brought my copy of The Sensory Deception to Italy, where I read it.
The three technologists/environmentalists, Farley, Chopper, and Ringo, hope to use their technology to raise awareness about endangered species by letting people experience what an animal experiences. To do that they need money, so they decide to start a company, and to get the company rolling they have to raise capital. They also need real-life data in order to write their software, which they have to get by attaching sensors to a living animal, such as a polar bear or a whale.
Getting the money and the data requires Farley the visionary and Chopper the doctor to travel the world and deal with sinister forces: terrorists, pirates, rogue environmentalists, mercenaries, corporate PR people, and venture capitalists. Their travels take them to the waters off Somalia and deep into the Amazon jungle. Ringo the engineer stays in Silicon Valley, where he designs all the hardware and software as the animal data come in. He, of course, has the really hard work. He deals with packet errors and forward-error correction.
A pod of female sperm whales and pups swims off the coast of Somalia. It is the prime attraction for bull sperm whales -- one of which will require sensors in order to record a deep dive and an encounter with what lurks below. But getting there isn’t so easy. It requires that Farley and Chopper get past pirates and the locals who live along the coast and that they pay, well, ransom. Then, when something unexpected is discovered, they plan to use their findings to tell the world about it. By doing so, they can promote their new product and potentially save people and wildlife at the same time.
While all this is going on, the pressure mounts to launch the product. After all, what does a venture capitalist care about pirates, whales, and environmental issues? So what if the other two are either rotting in a jail or slipping over foreign borders?
The Sensory Deception marks the first time I've read a book whose author I already knew. If you know Ransom then at times you can imagine him sitting next to you telling the story, especially when he starts taking about impedance mismatches to describe the flow of rivers.
While the characters in this book are fictitious, some names of DesignCon participants appear. If you regularly attend DesignCon, then you may know the names. In fact, Ransom may even mention you. Sorry, you'll have to read the book to find out if Ransom put your name in print.
Like many sci-fi thrillers, The Sensory Deception isn’t without its twists. Start by reading the first two chapters twice. You'll pick up clues that will help along the way. But even doing that, you're in for a few surprises. The ending came off a little too easy, but then so did the ending of Harry Potter.
Ransom does a nice job explaining the science behind sensory overload and what it can do. You can learn even more in his EDN blog. In some cases, he provides too much detail about the engineering labs for a lay person, but EE Times readers will appreciate it. I would have liked to see more about the politics involved when the unexpected finding off Somalia is finally brought to the surface. But, perhaps that's a story for another book.