The effervescent debut novel by tech writer Kevin Nguyen tackles a wide variety of contemporary issues, running the gamut from the havoc wreaked by unregulated technology to the ethics of music piracy, from the permanence of digital communication to the inherent racism found on dating sites.
Nguyen adroitly dissects these provocative topics through the stories of two New York City-based millennials who work at Nimbus, a tech startup, in 2009. Margo is black, a brilliant engineer perched at the top of Nimbus’ pay scale. Lucas is Asian American and a low-paid customer service rep. Initially they bond because of a shared interest in obscure music CDs from the 1970s and ’80s, which they illegally upload to an online community “dedicated to the distribution of pirated materials.” At Nimbus, they bond further over the racist corporate culture, felt especially by Margo. Eventually she quits and convinces Lucas to follow her, promising him that she can find them new jobs at another startup called Phantom, a digital messaging site in which all messages are deleted after they’ve been read. But Margo also comes up with a plan to spite Nimbus: On their way out the door, they will steal Nimbus’ email list. Only the next day do they realize they’ve mistakenly stolen the whole user database—names, profile photos and millions of passwords. It’s a mistake that reverberates throughout the rest of the novel.
As the plot evolves, Nguyen continues to inject the storyline with new twists: Margo’s accidental death that Lucas suspects may not have been an accident; his discovery of online messages between Margo and a budding sci-fi author whom he meets and briefly dates; and his efforts to keep his job at Phantom as the company struggles with privacy and censorship issues.
Readers seeking a more linear plot may feel unstable as New Waves bounces between these many storylines, but readers deeply immersed in our increasingly tech-savvy environment will delight in Nguyen’s piercing take on race and gender issues in the workplace, and the ethical debates swirling around social media sites. It’s all delivered with Nguyen’s personal brand of penetrating, acerbic humor.