In The Chain we are introduced to a cynical story of near-futurism where everyone is watching everyone all the time. Governments cease to function as they once did as the online world both transcends and negates borders. As Lukan and Topia travel the world they see first-hand the impact of the global network upon small communities; on local customs and mythologies and even dialects. Through the digital corporatocracy society is slowly being eroded and dissolved and replaced by a mainstream connectivist culture. There are some brilliant ideas in this book that have much relevance for today’s world and the direction we are headed. The Chain deals with themes of technology vs freedom of speech, preservation of culture, knowledge vs censorship and the impact of technology upon small communities and cultures.
Despite having some brilliant ideas, this book ultimately doesn’t deliver on the fundamentals. The characters motivations are weak, vague or sometimes forced, and in the boys journey they encounter very little, if any, real conflict until towards the climax. The reader is told of the global police state, and of the constant monitoring, censoring and dictation of social media, yet this predominantly remains an unseen world. In a heavily regulated and controlled society the boys manage to, very easily, travel across the world, walk through cities, discover allies almost immediately upon arrival of a new country, and engage with communities of “off-liners”. The boys experiences contrast the given expectation of the world. The government agents are lenient and barely do more than stand around in the shadows, watching but remaining inactive. Right from the start of the book, Millen misses an opportunity to present the totalitarian forces as anything but indifferent. Even Lukan and Topia’s motivations are lackluster. This, coupled with the lack of imminent danger or threat to the boys throughout the book, leaves their journey feeling flat and, overall, dissatisfaying. If the characters lack a solid emotional drive or investment then so do the readers.
But, despite the lack of genuine emotion, implied or inherent, the book is still an enjoyable read. Millen presents a very interesting and poignant look at the future and introduces some fascinating new concepts, while taking existing concepts and giving them a refreshing makeover. Everyone loves to compare dystopian fiction to Orwell’s 1984, but The Chain is more comfortable in the company of the likes of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. A sometimes-thought provoking read with moderate cyberpunk elements: 6/10.