Jul 26, 2009: The mentally-gifted tech-savvy kid is a popular cliché these days, but in Jesse Gordon’s SuperMegaNet we’re told right up front that actually being such a kid can be problematic. Theo, Jan, Eva, and Ernie are only twelve years old and already having to survive their first day of high school. This is difficult enough, but it seems they also have to survive each other.
Theo is smart and serious, a nice guy with a trendy, health-conscious mother. Jan, who’s from Czechoslovakia, is, despite his poverty, a budding heartthrob described as a “closet jock”—meaning, apparently, that his feminine-looking name (by American-boy standards) somehow outweighs his rather improbably well-developed muscles. Eva is perky, petite, and athletic, apparently a gymnast, complete with pony tail. Ernie, on the other hand, is a caustic “fat kid” with two obsessions: junk food and sex/pornography; the latter in particular is the basis for much or most of the humor in the story. The foursome, none of whom have ever met before, have been thrown together by their guidance counselor, who is concerned that their youth and gifted status will leave them friendless among the older kids at their high school. She gives them an assignment—to get to know each other a little by spending half an hour chatting online—and when they find that Jan’s computer has a hard time with this they innocently decide to try a new social networking program: SuperMegaNet.
It turns out, though, that SuperMegaNet, which is still in beta, gives new meaning to the term “vaporware.” Rather than putting its users into a virtual chatroom, SuperMegaNet actually teleports them through their computers and into each others’ homes. The kids, who had not actually been warned about this, are confused and alarmed at first, but they soon see the possibilities this offers . . . especially Ernie, who plans to try for something better than regular old pornography. And the adventures begin.
So what’s the story about? As a work-in-progress this can change at any time, but so far it’s mostly about the four kids and their relationships with one another. At the time of this writing there are fifteen episodes, and although SuperMegaNet features in most of them, it’s only actually used in about half, and often just to cause some kind of social difficulty, as when Ernie pops uninvited into the home of a complete stranger, or a complete stranger does the same to Ernie. (So far this has happened to Ernie twice, and although either of these intruders could have become important to the story, they appear, six or eight episodes later, to be one-offs.)
As the kids get acquainted both with each other and with SuperMegaNet, author Gordon makes but does not belabor some points about technology, reality, reality TV, and privacy, not to mention friendship. SuperMegaNet does not allow the user to turn his computer off and does not allow deletions from the user’s buddies list. It does allow complete strangers to watch each other around the clock and, as mentioned above, to barge into each other’s homes. Not only can SuperMegaNet appear to take over one’s life, but it turns out that it’s literally possible to end up with no other life whatever . . . like one “Jack SQL” who as a result of a computer crash lost his body and no longer exists at all outside the system. “This was, as I said, the early days,” he tells Theo, after barging via SuperMegaNet into his bedroom. “We now keep a backup copy of every SMN user on our servers, just in case.” This is intriguing, and has definite plot potential; I’d like to see more of it, though I have no particular reason to believe that I will.
Gordon’s writing is, for the most part, fluid and engaging, though the kids, unfortunately, don’t always sound like kids. As they’re gifted, I don’t have a problem with their use of words like “ergo” (currently rendered here as Ere go—a mercifully uncharacteristic slip-up). And I suppose it’s possible that a twelve-year-old girl might, out of whimsy or for some other reason, address her female friend as “babe.” But the kids’ many reflections (and lectures) on human nature don’t ring true.
There’s also the matter of sex. I know that adolescent boys are somewhat obsessed with sex, but when two of them tear their attention from a schoolyard fight to ogle—and trade comments about—a female motorist dropping off one of their fellow students, I have to wonder, especially as the woman doesn’t even get out of her car. The nature of the kids’ sexual interest is problematic as well; Ernie in particular seems way too interested in adult women, even to the point of trying to “score” with one, and all but indifferent to girls his own age. His yearnings, indeed most of the sexual feelings that crop up in this story, seem too hard-boiled and lasciviously clinical for a twelve-year-old. Even Eva, who unlike Ernie does not spend most of her free time checking out porn sites, is a tad precocious here; rather than merely sighing about how “cute” Jan is as the girls I grew up with would have, she focuses on his studly twelve-year-old bodybuilder muscles and all-but-irresistible “buns.” Perhaps times have changed, and perhaps the author means us to take Ernie’s perpetual horn-dog attitude to be a result of his Internet habits, and not the other way around. But for me the only plausible adolescent attraction in the story so far is Theo’s crush on Eva. He admires her quietly, though not so discreetly that no one notices, agonizing later over the enthusiasm of his greeting when he encounters her at school. It seems that the thing he most wants to do to her right now is to make a good impression. His self-doubts as he attempts this should feel familiar to most readers.
Given that SuperMegaNet is comic speculative fiction, Gordon does have a certain amount of leeway with his characters’ personalities. Comic characters, of course, tend to be exaggerated, and can be quite wonderful, as any reader of Dickens well knows. If crude, crass Ernie is to your taste you will probably enjoy SuperMegaNet very much. I find him a little hard to take, but I don’t expect he’ll keep me from checking in again to see how the story plays out.
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