Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing an advance copy in exchange for honest feedback
From the blurb, Sucker seemed the perfect book for me. Unfortunately I am really struggling to stay focused, I am 25% in and nothing has happened yet. The main character is quite unlikeable, which is usually not a problem, but in this case I find myself bored by him. Probably not the right book for me at the moment.
DNF at 25%.
* I'd like to thank the author, Anchor and NetGalley for providing this ebook in exchange for my honest review.
The book had me in the beginning but towards the second half it started to get a bit cumbersome to read. The sarcastic tone became too much and overall it just felt a bit too hipster for my liking.
For the longest time, I’ve tried to get into this story, and each time I couldn’t continue beyond about 30%. The humor is targeted towards a very specific group of people, and unfortunately that either doesn’t include me or it’s just not the right time for me to pick it up, I appreciate the early copy and hope the book has been finding it’s readers!
A biting look at the ability of our capitalist society to make money off of anything. Even as you feel the ending coming from a mile away, it still offers some Christopher Moore style humor as it tries to plunge a stake through the heart of the one percent.
I gave this book 20%, which was honestly overly generous. I think this humor is for a very select group of people, and I'm not a part of that group. If you are interested in a new-ish take on Elizabeth Holmes, here you go. Be warned, it's a vampire book that takes it's sweet time vampiring.
**Thank you NetGalley and Anchor for the eARC**
This book was pitched as Bad Blood meets Succession & I was immediately intrigued. The Theranos scandal was fascinating for me, and the addition of a sci fi horror element makes it the perfect package for warm summer night reading.
Thank you so much @netgalley & @vintageanchorbooks for the eArc!
Really interesting idea but following the wrong main character. Would have been way more interesting if we were following Olivia or someone other than Chuck
Chuck Gross is from one of the wealthiest families in the country -- not that you would know it if you met him. Chuck has founded a small music label and tries to hide his background, even as he relies on his family's resources to keep the label going. When his father finally threatens to cut him off if he does not get a "real job," Chuck reluctantly agrees to accept an offer from an old college friend to work for her at her tech company. Chuck's friend Olivia has founded a company that promises to change medical care with new technology, and it has captured the imagination of the press and funders. But as Chuck settles into his amorphous new job, he quickly realizes that the company and its core technology may be less than meets the eye -- and that there may be something dark underlying the company and his friend. Chuck must decide whether he is going to try to stop Olivia and reveal the truth of what is going on at her company -- and whether he even can.
This was a sharp and perceptive exploration of Silicon Valley and the hero culture that often surrounds tech company founders. It is also often quite funny as it explores timely themes related to inequity, ambition, and family.
This is basically the story of Elizabeth Holmes, famous for the meteoric rise and fall of her startup Theranos, if she had also been a vampire. Legitimately everything in this book, from the insane office space to the powerful board members and investors, was ripped right out of Elizabeth's wild tale.
Did I enjoy the book? Sure. It was fine. The story was VERY familiar as I've followed the Holmes scandal closely from day one, but I did appreciate that these rich dudes investing (unlike the Theranos investors) were fully aware they were doing it for the possibility of immortality. The characters fell flat for me; I couldn't really connect with any of them, so I did not care at all what happened to them in the end. The narrator/main character was kind of just annoying - constantly stating how he wanted to hide his background and get away from his super wealthy, well-known family, yet allowing his super wealthy well-known dad to fund his little record label project.
The story itself was okay. The vampire angle became obvious very early on, and I mostly spent the remainder of the book waiting for the main character to realize his new boss/old college friend was a vampire trying to recruit him. All in all, a decent book, but I wouldn't pick it up again.
Many thanks to NetGalley along with Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, and Anchor for the ARC!
This one had my mind BUZZING, I couldn't look away!
To start, let's meet Chuck Gross- the black-sheep scion of an industrial empire, who's been trying to prune himself from his family tree. He's ditched the fancy name and started a punk label, rebel that he is. But when Daddy threatens to cut him off, Chuck's forced into the corporate world... and that's when things get schwifty.
Enter Olivia Watts, the genius behind a bio-medical startup promising... immortality. Chuck dives in, but soon enough, he realizes the utopian promises might just be covering up a nightmare. Secret labs, weird experiments, an ape, uh, thing, and disappearing employees.
Hornsby's writing style had me hooked from page one.The story is so original and twisted, you'll question your own reality by the end. And Chuck! Oh boy, a character you'll root for even when he's knee-deep in the weirdest of situations. I loved how brutal and sassy and scared he was of everything.
This book isn't just a satire on the tech elite's insatiable greed, it's a rollercoaster of hilarious proportions that makes you question the thin line between innovation and downright madness. I found that to be an incredibly realistic touch within the chaos that ensued. I recommend this one to fans of Sign Here, as the writing style and main character put me in mind of Claudia Lux's.
Thanks so much to Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, and Anchor for the opportunity to read an advanced copy of this book in exchange for my honest thoughts!
Sucker was an interesting novel, looking at the tech world and the bad it can bring to the world. I liked the thriller/horror element and thought it was well done
This book just felt like way too much of a rip-off of the real life story of Elizabeth Holmes. I understand being inspired by real events and then writing a book loosely based off of those events, but this was just too close for comfort with no real 'credit' given. It did not do enough to separate itself from the real-life scandal. Overall, I really did like the breaking of the fourth wall throughout and just how overtly hilarious and out-there this book was. But, I just don't find it original and the ending wasn't paced well enough. It felt like we were building and building and building to this stellar conclusion and then it kind of just spews it out and then the book ends.
The book's concept sounded so good and so up my street, unfortunately, the book just didn’t really live up to my expectations. The storyline nor the characters really stood out to me and thus I had a very hard time getting into the story.
Thank you to Netgalley as well as Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, and Anchor for sending me an advanced copy.
Thank you to Netgalley and the Publisher for this Advanced Readers Copy of Sucker by Daniel Hornsby!
Silicon Valley dreams of itself as the realm of the future, a fifty-mile cradle between San Jose and San Francisco where the impossible is born. It’s here, after all, that so many of the gadgets and doo-hickeys foretold by Isaac Asimov and his ilk actually come to be. Unsurprising, then, that the genre of choice for recent fiction about tech companies has been sci-fi. The past half a decade alone has seen dozens of such novels, from the contemplative (Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House) to the satirical (Josh Riedel’s Please Report Your Bug Here; Dave Eggers’s The Every) to the bluntly dystopian (Rob Hart’s The Warehouse).
A new cluster of novels about big tech, though, have added to the subject’s standard fare of science fiction a helping of its nastier cousin, horror.
Colin Winnette’s Users, Daniel Hornsby’s Sucker, and Sarah Rose Etter’s Ripe find horror useful for its abiding interest in the vulnerability of the human body, that stubborn thing that no cloud-based consciousness engine can (yet) do away with entirely. In other words, the cybergothic provides a ready template for thinking through the physical toll of the virtual worlds that are rapidly swallowing contemporary life. From ghosts to vampires to sentient black holes, the monsters of this triptych are only slight exaggerations of our increasingly dissociated existences, asking what will happen to the husks we leave behind in meatspace.
[Note: Spoilers for Ripe, Users, and Suckers lie beneath.]
Users follows Miles, an amoral employee of an immoral company that designs exceedingly immersive virtual realities. In terms of technical sophistication, these in-brain experiences are several ticks to the right of what’s currently possible in 2023 (think Oculus plus mind- and memory-reading capabilities). The company’s profit motive, though, is thoroughly of our own era: users’ highly personal digital reveries conveniently provide the corporation with an endless wellspring of the most intimate consumer data imaginable—“unchecked want. Pure desire.”
Miles’s career, and the novel’s plot, take off when he invents The Ghost Lover, a highly popular virtual scenario in which the user is gently haunted by the spirit of an old flame. The game seamlessly marries Gothic creature with science fictional technology, “merging elements of real life with the impossible logic of the subconscious[,] … the extra-rational.” It is there, after all, in the locked basement of the unconscious, that horror thrives—and Ghost Lover asks whether we really ought to use science to open the door to that particular cellar. “If Miles had learned anything from working at a virtual reality company that invited users to build customized experiences out of the content of their dreams,” an early passage explains with unmissable foreboding, “it was that we all kept horrible parts of ourselves alive in the dark.” It’s a Gothic prophecy that Miles himself eventually fulfills when he unwittingly conjures an incestuous VR fantasy late in the novel.
Souls without flesh, ghosts are the original avatars, emblems of the Cartesian split that allows our minds to ditch our skin-bags and spend time “in” an internet shopping mall or the pixelated elsewhere of a Netflix show. Fittingly, disembodiment is built into the very architecture of The Ghost Lover: in order to play, the user lies down in a pod-like device called The Egg, which completely encases the player, hijacks their vision, and “move[s] and monitor[s] [their] body for them, allowing the user to fully engage with the potential of the company’s platform while remaining in an isolated, reclined, and passive state.”
The Egg’s emphasis on physical insulation—only a slight exaggeration of VR pod designs that already exist today—epitomizes the ways that entertainment technology severs us not just from our own bodies, but from those around us. Miles’s fate eventually takes this to its logical extreme, the novel’s conclusion trapping him indefinitely in the Egg and its imagined worlds. But sci-fi again proves a natural bedfellow to horror: the ghost as supernatural archetype also speaks to the online age because it is a figure of profound loneliness. From Beloved to Patrick Swayze’s Sam, the sad specter offers the living an impossible fantasy of communion with someone who is gone.
Miles’s ghost game is explicitly born of just such a wish fulfillment. As the novel progresses, he becomes increasingly estranged from his borderline sociopathic older daughter and cold wife. (The latter eventually brings their marital detente to a crisis by moving into their family’s basement with the architect who has been slowly remodeling their home into a disorienting, Udolpho-ish castle. Yowch.) A few months after his father dies—a loss that completes his isolation—Miles spends a rare weekend at home without his partner and kids. Soon, he begins to hear mysterious thumps in his bedroom walls at night, sounds that seem “supernatural, like something from beyond was trying to use the walls to communicate with him.” It isn’t long before Miles has dreamed up The Ghost Lover, a game for people who would rather be haunted than confront the reality of their solitude. The result is “a curiously infinite navel,” a self-generated and self-perpetuating fantasy of being wanted. An eternal scroll, in other words, for the extremely online.
Dissociation is also the emotional status quo of the tech world depicted in Ripe. Cassie, an employee of a Bay Area startup specializing in the innately sinister field of persuasive technology, has been followed since birth by a small black hole. This cosmic familiar is the definition of horror, concentrating all of the universe’s most ominous possibilities in one place: “danger, nothingness, mystery, evil, other dimensions, the unknown, the mystical void, death, the end of the world as we know it.” Yet within the novel, the hole functions less as a physical threat to Cassie than as an emblem of her depression. The Cassandra to her Cassandra, the hole grows and shrinks in proportion to her loneliness, singing her name with “the siren song of the void.” Like Winnette, Etter is more interested in the melancholic registers of the supernatural than in its abject terrors. (The two moods do sometimes converge, however, as in the string of gory suicides that Cassie witnesses in San Francisco and its surrounds, one-man protests of the region’s unlivable economic and spiritual conditions.)
Cassie increasingly outsources her feelings to her deep-space mood ring because she finds Silicon Valley so very inhospitable to them. “To survive here, I have split myself in two: my true self and my false self,” she notes. The reasons for Cassie’s alienation from the local culture are manifold: the workaholic koolaid that she must guzzle in order to pay her astronomical rent; tech conglomerates’ boasts of bettering the world while they in fact do little more than to turn user data into ad revenue; the screen addiction that gobbles up what little leisure time might have been spent on social connection, commuters’ “faces melting into their phones.”
In response to these and other miseries, Cassie’s chosen survival mechanism is the waking blackout, an elective numbness both to her immediate surroundings and to her body. During work meetings that toggle between mundanity and corporate malfeasance, Cassie keeps sane by mentally teleporting to far-off scenes: “a mountaintop, nimbus clouds, volcanoes erupting, galaxies colliding and combining.” Even the eminently physical experiences of sex and pregnancy succeed only in further separating Cassie’s mind from her body. When a pregnancy test comes back positive, “I expect something volent to happen inside of me …. No feeling comes. I want to cry or throw up, but neither happens.” It comes as little surprise, then, when the novel ends with a portrait of radical and voluntary disembodiment. Swallowed by a void, Cassie—like Miles, in the final pages of Users—abdicates from her flesh in an act that suggests both obliteration and her only chance at freedom.
Sucker also considers the physical abjection wrought by big tech, but carries out its critique by zooming in on the body rather than disappearing it. This is a story, according to narrator Chuck Grossheart, “soggy with blood (not to mention the other human juices: vomit, liquefied organs, incidental semen, some of those symbolic medieval humors, nervous sweat, and piss…).” Though the gore doesn’t rev up until its final chapters, Sucker’s recurring metaphors are the stuff of Giallo—not just blood, but also the heart (see: our anti-hero’s surname), and cancer cells. In Hornsby’s crosshairs are not just the real-life, secret body count behind so many of Silicon Valley’s luxury inventions (one thinks, for instance, of the injuries suffered by Congolese people who mine the cobalt needed for smartphone manufacture), but also the technorati’s obsession with using “‘technology [to] unlock … the full potential of their [own] bodies and minds,’” as the novel’s villainous entrepreneur brags. It’s a line that could have been uttered without irony by any number of the techies swept up in the current longevity craze.
Grossheart is the listless heir to an ill-gotten family fortune, dark money that gets him a job at an even darker institution: a Theranos doppelganger that aims to rapidly test and treat diseases with nanobots in the bloodstream. The eventual revelation that the outfit is being run by vampires—a self-anointed plutocracy that plans to “help” less brilliant humans by controlling their minds via nanobot—is not meant to surprise the reader. (If the novel’s title and cover art weren’t giveaways enough, there are plenty of other nods along the way to this lightly fictionalized tech elite’s literal and figurative bloodsucking, from bats that double as surveillance drones to technobabble investor pitches that glamour the listener.) Instead, the book’s dramatic tension comes from the main character’s willing obliviousness to the nosferatus in his midst, even as he falls more deeply into their clutches and unwittingly advances their plans.
Of course, the vampire is by no means new metaphorical ground for critiques of corporate America’s greed, or even that of Silicon Valley specifically. The bloody deeds of Peter Thiel (rumored), Elizabeth Holmes (confirmed), and the like are too creepy not to have already invited the analogy many times over in journalism and fiction alike. But Hornsby is unusually committed to the bit. In his simultaneously paranoid and plausible vision (The Crying of Lot 49 is a frequent touchstone), the conspiracy of wealth that rules the Bay Area sucks dry everything and everyone, from the underclasses of the poor and sick who desperately agree to participate in illegal lab testing, to the local arts scene (which, in a poisonous irony, must rely on tech funding to survive in a region that tech has made prohibitively expensive for artists).
Taken together, this trio of novels suggests that the physical and social dissociation increasingly baked into our technology makes for an ideal breeding-ground for moral indifference. Sucker, Users, and Ripe bring us tech worker protagonists who become responsible for monstrosity so gradually that they’re barely aware it’s happening. Hornsby, Etter, and Winnette differ chiefly in their degrees of optimism that the foot soldiers of big tech can—or even want to—disentangle themselves from such amorphous complicity: as Grossheart declares with disquieting pride in Sucker’s final line, “My chest was hollow. I had no heart. I didn’t need it.”
Ehh. I didn't love this one. I DID like the writing and that's the only reason I didn't DNF the book.
Honestly, it was a struggle for me to finish this one. I found the writing unenjoyable and did not really find the characters interesting enough to justify my time spent reading this book.
I DNFed this book. I unfortunately did not vibe with the writing style or the characters.. I was so bored throughout and I did not like any of the characters. The main character was insufferable and I could not read any longer after making its to 35%
Thank you to Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, and Anchor & NetGalley for allowing me to read and review this book
Published by Anchor on July 11, 2023
Sucker is marketed as a satire, but it takes the form of a thriller that morphs into a horror novel. I suspect the horror is meant to be satirical, because vampires are only taken seriously by Bram Stoker fans and romance novelists. Unfortunately, the horror comes too late to distinguish Sucker from non-satirical thrillers that follow the same formula.
Sucker tells a story of corporate greed driven by a “secret society” that is controlling the world (or, at least, pulling the strings that matter to its members). Its members have an ability they describe as “the Gift.” Perhaps it is the concept of a secret cabal (common in thriller literature and far-right blogs) that Daniel Hornsby meant to satirize. Or perhaps he meant to mock Elizabeth Holmes, who famously bilked investors with promises of technical advances in medicine that they probably should have recognized as unachievable. Regardless of Hornsby’s intent, Sucker hews too tightly to the conventions and content of a traditional thriller to satirize effectively.
The story is apparently set in an alternate universe where the tech industry is centered in San Narcisco and Facebook is called GetTogether. Perhaps the changes were intended to assure that Holmes wouldn’t sue Hornsby. At the heart of the story is a young man named Charlie. Charlie is not a virtuous thriller hero. He’s a bit of a slacker. He’s self-centered and often self-pitying. He’s nevertheless interesting because his faults give him enormous room for growth. The plot of Sucker creates an incentive for Charlie to become a better person. Circumstances also give him the opportunity to remain self-centered. What choice Charlie will make fuels the story’s minimal dramatic tension. Given the artificial nature of the choice, I’m not sure many readers will care what Charlie does.
Charlie calls himself Chuck Gross but he was born Charles Grossheart, the son of a wealthy businessman. His father made a fortune in the oil industry by being evil. He pays lobbyists to disparage global warming so that his fossil fuel investments are not threatened by trivial concerns like destroying the planet.
Charlie uses a different working name so that he will not be disparaged as a music producer. He started his own label devoted to the rebirth of punk rock, appropriately named Obnoxious. His “noisy vanity project” is bleeding money, but he hopes a newly released album called Sucker by Pro Laps will improve its revenues. It helps that Thane, the band’s lead male vocalist, made the news by dying under mysterious circumstances. His girlfriend, the band’s drummer, now sings Pro Laps songs with the kind of grief that punk fans regard as authentic. Thanks to Thane’s suspicious death, Obnoxious might make money after all.
Before Thane dies, Charlie worries about paying his artists without going to his family for help. He accepts an invitation from his college friend, Olivia Watts, to join her business as a creative consultant. Mostly Olivia wants to exploit Charlie’s family name to attract investors to her business. The company claims it is engineering biological nanobots that will monitor and eventually cure medical problems as they arise, dramatically extending lifespans. Olivia’s true goal is less humanitarian. Olivia is the Elizabeth Holmes character in that her promised technological advances are untethered to reality. Perhaps Holmes, like Olivia, had “the Gift” in the sense that she had an unusual talent for persuading investors to follow her. I’m not sure that appealing to greed actually requires any persuasive talent, but the Gift is a key element of Olivia’s success.
Charlie is eventually approached by a whistleblower who has evidence that Olivia’s company is scamming investors by making overblown claims of success in its research. Charlie doesn’t know whether to believe the whistleblower or his old friend Olivia, although he eventually recognizes obvious signs that Olivia is manipulating him. The novel finally shifts into second gear when the whistleblower arrives, but it travels a long road in first before it reaches that point.
To foreshadow the conspiracy plot, Charlie encounters a symbol — an infinity sign with teeth — at odd locations on Olivia’s company property. Why is the symbol carved into a table leg? Who knows. Eventually we learn about “an ancient society of the world’s most intelligent and talented individuals, all working to bring about the evolution of humanity to something better, stronger.” Secret societies are ubiquitous in thrillers. I wish they existed so they could do something useful, although in most thrillers they are only interested in advancing the interests of their members. A society doesn’t need to be secret to advance that goal. The Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation, among many others, operate in the open to achieve their nefarious ends.
About two-thirds of the novel has passed before we learn the truth about Olivia. That truth made me wonder why I’d been reading about Charles’ obsession with his family and his little music company, none of which has much to do with the story’s eventual focus. I suppose the revelation is where the satire begins, the point at which a mundane story about a rebellious rich kid begins to emulate a thriller, complete with murders and chase scenes. Olivia acknowledges that her scheme will do something awful to test subjects, something that might appear “unsavory” to the uninitiated. I suppose that’s satire, as is Olivia’s notion of wealthy people who have “the Gift” leading a cultural and biological evolution. Perhaps the intent is to blend white supremacy with wealthy entitlement while poking fun at both of them, but the satire never grabbed me, never exposed anything that hasn’t always been obvious. Swindlers are bad? Global warming deniers are evil? Greed isn’t good? Oh really? A better title for a novel making those points without developing them into an exciting story would be Obvious Observations.
Some paragraphs of Sucker feel like padding. A diatribe about zebras and a description/discussion of various family portraits in the Grossheart mansion add little beyond word count to the story. Yes, the zebra eventually becomes a symbol of Charlie’s true essence, but only in Charlie’s deluded mind. Hornsby’s smooth prose kept me reading even as I continued to wonder how he planned to make an interesting story out of a secret society and punk rock and vampires. As satire, a vampire story doesn’t have the bite (no pun intended) of a proposal to eat children. Even with the addition of mysterious deaths and an Elizabeth Holmes clone, Hornsby never developed an engrossing story, whether it is classified as a thriller or a horror novel or a satire. I was ultimately disappointed that some decent writing and characterization failed to serve a stronger story.
RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS