In an era of artificial intelligence, gene splicing, and handheld devices that hold an entire life’s history and keep people in constant touch with everything and everyone on Earth, there is still much that we don’t understand and a lot to be scared of: seeing your work go for naught, getting lost, losing a friend. Maybe the worst thing is simply not understanding what’s happening to you and what will happen next. The characters in the novel “Beta Test” by Eric Griffith are elbow-deep into the modern world; they are hi-tech workers north of Silicon Valley in the light, lively town of San Francisco. But then everything goes wrong. Everything. People simply disappear and the world starts to look like it’s coming to an end. Have we earned it and can we control it?
“Beta Test” has been called “an unusually lighthearted apocalyptic tale” and it is a fun book to read. But there are some real chills. The principal characters are workers at a struggling high-tech company called EverLife that created virtual realities, sort of four-dimensional video games. Yet the characters, especially Sam Terra, a bright, overweight technician, soon find that they are pawns in a game played by creatures from another dimension. When his co-worker and secret sweetheart Molly Maddox suddenly disappears, then an empty airplace crashes into San Fancisco Bay, and millions of people worldwide (including the vice-president of the United States) turn up missing it is obvious that there are stronger forces at work than mere earthlings can deal with.
But Sam and his friends prove to be constantly resourceful. Sam returns to his (and author Eric Griffith‘s) hometown of Hornell, NY, where he discovers that some people were able to return in a new guise but that alien forces had truly taken control of the world. Their power seems to be based in a zoo in Australia, where prehistoric animals have begun to run loose and everything seems to be guided by God, who appears in the guise of a talking platypus names Richard. An action-filled apocalyptic tale turns into an inquiry into the workings of power, faith and human resourcefulness.
“I know what you’re going to say,” Richard said, floating on his back, slapping the water’s surface occasionally with his flat tail.
“What kind of ‘God’ would I be if I didn’t?” The platypus, even with webbed feet, managed to pull off air quotes as he said ‘God’.
“Right. Of course.”
“You want to talk me out of shutting down our little beta test of the universe. You want to wax eloquent about the wonders of humanity and the great things you have achieved, like the wheel, and computer chips, and intarsia art at craft fairs. You think –”
“Intarsia. You know. Wood inlaid artwork? C’mon.”
— from “Beta Test”
Eric Griffith has written short stories and been a reporter for several technical publications. He attended Ithaca College and is now features editor for PCMag.com. Eric joins Bill Jaker on Off the Page to tell about the creation of destruction in “Beta Test”.