Benjamin Percy’s The Dark Net is a floating signifier obsessed not only with never being nailed down but also with trying to cross-pollinate as many genres and subgenres as possible. At once a mystery narrative, a hardcore horror novel, a science fiction book, and a tale that deconstructs Portland while showing readers the absolute omnipresence of the internet in countries that are on the lucky side of the digital divide, this is the kind of novel that would make almost any reader happy simply because there is something here for everyone regardless of what they usually read.
The Dark Net is a real thing. It is a place where you can get products and services that could land you in prison for a long, long time. It’s a shady, anonymous place inhabited by weirdoes, criminals, the worst pornographers, and those looking for things they can’t get at a regular store. Now, there is something else in there as well, something that could use the net’s reach to do a lot of damage. The only thing between those plans and their execution is a group of people, and some of them have no idea what they’re getting into.There’s Hannah, a twelve-year-old blind girl who has served as guinea pig for the Mirage, a new, high-tech visual prosthetic that allows her to “see” the word around her, including things others can’t. Hannah’s aunt, Lela, is a technophobic journalist stuck in the past, but her current investigation puts her on a dangerous path. Mike Juniper, who grew up as a child evangelist, is running a homeless shelter and living the aftermath of a literal second life and is well versed in combating demons, those inside him and the ones roaming the streets. Lastly, there’s Derek, a hacker with a conscience who considers himself a regulating agent of good on the web. They’ll get some extra help from a strange figure, but what they’re up against is every dangerous and has more hands working for it.
If I wrote about every enjoyable element in The Dark Net, this would turn into one of those obnoxiously long reviews that no one reads. Instead, I’ll pick three elements of the narrative that push it into must-read territory and only discuss those.
The first thing about The Dark Net that stands out is Percy’s unique take on the internet. These days, it seems like every other author out there is trying to write a novel about the darkest side of the web and the stuff that goes on in there. In the case of this novel, everything more or less starts with establishing, in a non-judgmental way, the omnipresence of the digital realm in our everyday lives. Yes, this is somewhat of a cautionary tale, but it’s never preachy and allows its palpitating, adventurous heart to lead the way at all times. Also, there is a strong supernatural elements that makes the dark net feel fresh and interesting even beyond the stuff that already goes on behind its veil.
The second element is the powerful strangeness that permeates the novel. Strange characters, bizarre rituals, impossible skulls in unexpected places, the Mirage, hellish hounds roaming the streets, and birds that are almost human in their actions all add up to a narrative that unflinchingly enters the realm of the Weird and comfortably stays there until the last page. Most importantly, it does it at an enjoyable pace and without even allowing the weirdness to overpower the plot.
Lastly, and this is perhaps the one that folks would least expect, the way Percy deconstructs Portland and reconstructs it as an entirely new place with the same DNA is fantastic. Sure, this is the Portland of countless jokes and television shows, but also a place in which dark alleys hold even darker secrets, not everyone is a vegan yogi, and massive, bloodthirsty hounds destroy Powell’s on a crazy night. In other words, this is a better, far more entertaining version of the Portland everyone else writes about.
The Dark Net succeeds because it makes the reader see the digital nightmare we already live in while also whispering that it could be much worse. While most techno-thrillers put a lot of emphasis on the technological part and forget to thrill, Percy offers healthy doses of both, and the result is a novel that keep you turning the pages instead of checking your phone, and that is the highest compliment you can pay a novel these days.
The Dark Net
by Benjamin Percy
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 272 p.