Defining humanity is always a tricky proposition. Science fiction novels over the decades have grappled with the dilemma of what makes us human. The genre often uses body modification as a means to explore this question as well as to tell a good story. Augment: Human Services by Phil Elmore uses the question to set up the opening chapter of a potentially lengthy serial work. The novella presents a future where humanity is rigidly defined by society. On the fringes of this society, not everything is concisely defined.
If I had to label Augment: Human Services under any concepts it would be cyberpunk. One of the aesthetics of cyberpunk, where physical modification augments and destroys human identification is present throughout the story. In this way, Augment: Human Services is in the same territory as stories like Ghost in the Shell. Elmore makes excellent use of vivid imagery, solid description, and character to define where the line is drawn by society and where it is drawn by the lead character. David Chalmers is an agent of the government, sworn to defend the normal humans from the Oggies, a term used to describe humans who have undergone severe cybernetic surgeries. These Oggies are denizens of their own ghetto, separated because their augmentations aren’t just replacement limbs but often full body transformations. The descriptions of Oggies who have transformed into beast-like cyborgs are chilling and masterfully written. To describe Oggies as alien is both completely true and barely scratching the surface.
Chalmers is an honest cop but a brutal one. Considering the setting, brutality is not only necessary, it is inescapable. Elmore writes him with the no-nonsense moral clarity one finds in characters like Jack Reacher or John McClane. He’s the kind of character you could picture doing no other job than the one given in the story. The author uses Chalmers to show the abhorrent nature of the Oggies, the kind of extremism that can lead to such madness. The thrust of the story is that Chalmers is set up for murder but the mystery is simply a means to get the story going. Rather than tell the audience how capable Chalmers is, Elmore spends much of the novella having his lead character escape custody in brilliant, albeit exceedingly painful fashion. The fights in this story are not brief nor do they skimp on the gory details. Elmore takes time to make sure the reader understands the physical toll of violence. All of the fight scenes have a crisp, punctuated style to them, moving quickly and fluidly through the paces. The fight choreography is cinematic in presentation but not description. Cinematic fights tend to involve less damage to the character. Elmore conveys the notion that Chalmers is constantly fighting to stay alive.
The novella is an easy read, written by Elmore in such a way that the reading audience can follow along. Augment: Human Services is an excellent starter for a larger series, leaving plenty of mysteries to be solved in the next installment, while establishing the setting and background in excellent fashion. By the end of the novella, I could see the grimy, corrupt world Chalmers inhabits and I wanted to continue experiencing it. Get the novella and be prepared for a trip through a plausible future that explores the darkest corners of humanity.