Bluescreen – A Novel About Teenage Hackers and Digital Drugs

Bluescreen is one of those novels that I picked up based on the cover. The title, Bluescreen, immediately tells you there is going to some kind of computer crash, in this case, it is a brain implant. You crash to get high. Drugs, a cyberpunk staple. The cover’s imagery tells us so much. This is how you design a good cover. The metropolitan city enshrouded by a layer of flying crafts, in this case, drones that have been assigned assorted tasks. Then there is the woman, front, and center. She is obviously not Caucasian, immediately informing us that this book will examine multicultural ideas. She is Hispanic, and this plays well into her low-life existence in this cyberpunk world. She is also adorned with a prosthetic limb, which shows off as much style as it does substance. In the story, this too does not go ignored. Her cyberlimb matters. Even the clothes that she wears seeps with a cyberpunk style.


The official synopsis is:

Los Angeles in 2050 is a city of open doors, as long as you have the right connections. That connection is a djinni—a smart device implanted right in a person’s head. In a world where virtually everyone is online twenty-four hours a day, this connection is like oxygen—and a world like that presents plenty of opportunities for someone who knows how to manipulate it.

Marisa Carneseca is one of those people. She might spend her days in Mirador, but she lives on the net—going to school or doing things of more questionable legality with her friends Sahara and Anja.

It’s Anja who first gets her hands on Bluescreen—a virtual drug that plugs right into a person’s djinni and delivers a massive, non-chemical high. But in this city, when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Mari and her friends soon find themselves in the middle of a conspiracy that is much bigger than they ever suspected.

Dan Wells, author of the New York Times bestselling Partials Sequence, returns with a stunning new vision of the near future—a breathless cyber-thriller where privacy is the world’s most rare resource and nothing, not even the thoughts in our heads, is safe.

Dan Wells is the author of Bluescreen. He is best known for his novel, I am not a Serial Killer, which has a movie coming out in the near future. He is also well known for his involvement in the popular writer’s podcast, Writing Excuses, where he has stated that when he reads science fiction, cyberpunk is the fiction he goes to. This familiarity with the genre doesn’t go unnoticed in Bluescreen. He nails many of the tropes of the genre, while simultaneously updating them for a modern audience.


The primary plot device in the story is the djinni, a brain-computer interface device that connects the user to the net at all times. This provides practical augmented reality and a portal from which to enter the VR space. Marisa, the protagonist, is the member of the Cherry Dogs, a video game guild that plays a popular game at a professional level. When they aren’t playing, the Cherry Dogs act as a hacker collective.

Their stunning hacking abilities are all the more powerful in a world where there are drones and self-driving cars zip around the city at all hours. This gives them a physical power over their environment that is reminiscent of “rigging” from Shadowrun. Rigging is when a hacker plugs his brain into a vehicle or drone and essentially becomes the user’s body. Self-driving cars are the center of the best scene in the novel, where the characters are forced to run out in o the freeway where self-driving cars are hurtling by at breathtaking speeds, but because of the algorithms that rule these cars, they automatically veer around them. This makes for a compelling scene with high tension and showcasing the level in which technology in this world has been integrated into everything.

Overall, the story is compelling. It is a compelling techno-thriller with great cyberpunk feel that often gets the tech right. When the characters are hacking and engaging the hacker community, it feels believable. The speed at which they hack things is often unrealistic, but in fiction, I can suspend this disbelief for the sake of the story. Another aspect of Bluescreen that I found refreshing was that most of the characters are not Caucasian and are not stereotypical cutouts of the ethnic group they represent. Instead, they come across as real people who are often at the mercy of their circumstances. Sometimes this is associated with their race, but it is obvious that the world’s melting pot is getting more and more mixed in this future.

Bluescreen, the drug, is a fascinating exploration of how digital drugs may come about. The drug dumps junk data into the user’s brain-computer until it is overwhelmed and crashes. This experience is a high with non-chemical origins, but results in minutes of unconsciousness as the user “reboots.” The more insidious aspect of this drug is that while djinni is out of commission, it installs a program in the brain that allows the drug dealers to control the users remotely while they are out. One of the disappointments in this novel was that this abuse of the users wasn’t taken anywhere near its logical conclusion. It steers well clear of the dark, dark uses of this tech. That is symptomatic of the fact that this is a Young Adult novel, something I didn’t realize when I started reading it.

Most of the issues that I had with this novel came from the fact that I am not the target audience. I love cyberpunk, which is why I picked it up, but I am not a teenager. The writing itself felt too simple; I like more complexity in word choice. I felt that it was too easy to read. Most of the story’s subplots involved some kind of teenage angst, which I can appreciate, but it got tiresome after awhile. The two love interests in the story, Saif and Omar, were very hard for me to tell apart. At first, I didn’t realize they were different characters. They are both dealing Bluescreen. They are both exotic playboys, who are older than the girls. They both have the same kind of awkward magnetism for Marisa. Even their character arcs are remarkably similar.

What I can say about this book, is that I can see its value. It wasn’t written for me; it was written for teenagers. And any novel that has the balls to show teenagers that sometimes disobeying authority is the right thing is good in my book. This is also how I felt about the Hunger Games books. The world and characters were compelling, however, and when the sequel, Ones and Zeroes, that Wells is currently developing comes out I will read it.

Here is the synopsis for Ones and Zeroes that will be coming out in February 2017:

Overworld. It’s more than just the world’s most popular e-sport—for thousands of VR teams around the globe, Overworld is life. It means fame and fortune, or maybe it’s a ticket out of obscurity or poverty. If you have a connection to the internet and four friends you trust with your life, anything is possible.

Marisa Carneseca is on the hunt for a mysterious hacker named Grendel when she receives word that her amateur Overworld team has been invited to Forward Motion, one of the most exclusive tournaments of the year. For Marisa, this could mean everything—a chance to finally go pro and to help her family, stuck in an LA neighborhood on the wrong side of the growing divide between the rich and the poor. But Forward Motion turns out to be more than it seems—rife with corruption, infighting, and danger—and Marisa runs headlong into Alain Bensoussan, a beautiful, dangerous underground freedom fighter who reveals to her the darker side of the forces behind the tournament. It soon becomes clear that, in this game, winning might be the only way to get out alive.


Bluescreen – 6/10

You can follow Dan Wells on one of his blog, Fearful Symmetry or official website, The Dan Wells.

You can follow Dan Wells on Social Media at Facebook and Twitter.

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Veritas is a cyberpunk and writer who enjoys all aspects of the cyberpunk genre and subculture. He also journeys deeply into the recesses of the dissonance exploring his nihilistic existence. If you'd like to contact Isaac L. Wheeler (Veritas), the founder and editor-in-chief of Neon Dystopia, you can do so here:
  1. Read this one too, about 3 months ago. I agree it’s not the best. A bit like a Cyberpunk Da Vinci Code with cardboard characters, bad dialogues, a mediocre plot (that turns really crap near the end). But still, it entertained me. Not good, but an easy read for in the sun on the beach.

  2. It’s a shame that this is YA, because the world building sounds pretty impressive.

    • I agree. If this had been an adult oriented story about teenage hackers it would have been phenomenal. Being YA, the rule of thumb is that your characters should be two years older than your target audience. So, since the characters are 17, then the target audience is 15. No wonder Wells worried about being too dark.

      • I wonder if it would be possible to essentially have 2 different versions of the same book?
        One for YA and one for adults.

        • What a terrible and unintentional pun that was!

      • Craig, I imagine most kids would probably just opt for the adult version. Did you see the recent uproar over the YA version of The Da Vinci Code that Dan Brown is supposedly releasing? I think the general consensus is that it was a bit pointless.

        I have heard that the next book is quite a bit darker and twisted, so perhaps he used Bluescreen as a gateway drug.

        • I hope so, I really do. The world is interesting and has a lot of potential.

        • Yeah, you’re probably right. I can see why there is outrage about the DB novel. I guess what I’m wondering is whether it would be possible to swap out the angsty teenager lovey dovey stuff for something grittier.
          I guess if it would work, someone would have done it by now.

  3. I think that what it comes down to is the editors from these major publishing houses. YA is a younger genre, with readers that are less familiar with everything that has come before, thus doing cyberpunk and other dystopias is easier to sell on this level. The adult market seems to be kind of wary of cyberpunk, because it comes with a lot of baggage and expectations that other science fiction doesn’t. Maybe that is why so much cyberpunk lit these days is being self-published.

  4. I enjoyed it well enough; I was a little way into it when I sat back and thought “ah, this is YA, isn’t it?”

    (Not necessarily a bad thing. I read a fair amount of YA. Anyone who hasn’t read China Mieville’s Railsea needs to get right on it, asap)

    I think it suffered from the author was and wasn’t prepared to do, in order not to alienate his audience, but it was exciting enough. There was a bit, somewhere in the last third, where the character muses on what happens when she’s disconnected, which (if not exactly original), rings true – and more so for a teen, I suspect, who has grown up with constantly-on connections, and not so much for someone who wasn’t connected for the first couple of decades of his life (*cough*)

    I’m in the same place as most of you folk, enjoyable, light, and I can see the value if it’s being read by early teens; I do think that it could have been more mature and not lost it’s audience – I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I read Neuromancer and Islands In The Net, but I know I wasn’t any older than 15.

    • Sounds like we are on the same page, Snake.

    • The woman on the cover is white and even if she is Hispanic, it’s silly to assume the novel would cover multi cultural themes just because of that.


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