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Literature / Dopamine

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Dopamine is a 2014 novel by technologist and part-time author Mikhail Voloshin. It's a modern-day adaptation of the Cyberpunk genre that effectively takes place in the real world of the 2010s.

Dopamine rests on the realization that many William Gibson style tales from the 1980s and 1990s — stories about omnipotent megacorporations, about weaponized computer viruses and a citizenry that conducts almost all of its interaction in a digital proxy world, about wily purple-haired computer hackers zooming on motorcycles through the neon-lit nighttime streets of gritty metropolises on missions to bust through firewalls, crack encryption algorithms, and thwart artificial intelligence constructs — essentially describe the actual reality in which we currently live. With the existence of Google, Big Data, 4G cellphones, the NSA's PRISM program, Edward Snowden, Wikileaks, Anonymous, and Cyberpunk 2020 having turned out to be still far away in the future as of January 2020, the genre of cyberpunk literature is essentially redundant; there is basically no point with reading Snow Crash, when the good ol' New York Times in 2020 can do the same job of painting a bleak cyberpunk future being reality today, here and now.


Dopamine, therefore, is driven by a plot that sounds like something out of a Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020 source manual. Yet it reads a bit like a Tom Clancy tech thriller; describes technology that is not only common but almost downright mundane; and depicts thoroughly researched real-world hacking techniques, often in painstaking and scarily accurate detail.

From the book's website:

Danny, a onetime computer whiz-kid now in his late thirties, is still lamenting his latest dot-com failure when tech investor Jason Tuttle offers him a special assignment: hack into Tungsten Medical Technologies and steal their pharmaceutical research.

At first, Danny and his team of semi-competent geeks relish the chance to play-act as cybercriminals, but they soon discover they aren't the only ones interested in the secretive biotechnology firm. Their ill-timed computer shenanigans interrupt an armed break-in of the laboratory by the Russian mafia, and Danny lands squarely in the crosshairs of a local cocaine kingpin. He soon finds himself hunted by drug dealers and exploited by Machiavellian corporate moguls in a battle over a test tube of genetically engineered bacteria.


With the help of Tina, an amateur microbiologist desperate for professional recognition, Danny must use his technical skills to elude his powerful pursuers — and, with luck, even beat them at their own game.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Always Save the Girl: Used repeatedly. In Act I, it's Tina. In Act II, it's Julie Yen. In Act III, it's Rosie Mukhayev.
  • Arc Words: "Let's make it happen."
  • Asshole Victim: Julie Yen. Horrible things happen to her, but she essentially brings them upon herself every time. She's not entirely unsympathetic, but after she crosses the Moral Event Horizon by dissolving Rex's face with a bottle of 11-molar hydrochloric acid, you know things won't go well for her.
  • Big Bad: Sergey Mukhayev certainly feels like one at first, but by Act III it becomes obvious that the true antagonist behind the events of the plot is Ivan Zheleznov.
  • Cyber Punk Is Techno: Invoked early in the story. When Jason Tuttle meets Danny at Noc Noc to give him his mission assignment, the chapter opens on Noc Noc's techno / dubstep background noise filling the club.
  • The Dragon: Eugene is Sergey's chief enforcer. Though Sergey is certainly physically terrifying in his own right, he leaves it to Eugene to keep the gang's mooks in line during normal business operations.
  • Evil Overlord: Ivan Zheleznov, who rules an international criminal empire with utter disregard for any semblance of value of human life. Even Sergey is outright terrified of him — for good reasons.
  • A Father to His Men: Sergey Mukhayev. We see his paternal instincts in caring for the wounded Deshaun, for example. The people who work for him seem to simultaneously fear him and look up to him.
  • Homemade Inventions: The HERF gun, the incubator thermostat, and basically everything in Danny's garage.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Danny, basically. In fact, the only reason Roger is able to track him down is because there are ultimately very few people in the city who could possibly have built that HERF gun.
  • Hollywood Hacking: A complete and total subversion is arguably the entire point of Dopamine. The hacking techniques are described with such attention to real-world detail that some of them can be outright used as a how-to manual.
    • The author wrote comments about the scene in which Danny breaks into Eugene's cellphone. He actually carried out the hack, word for word and step for step, on himself using a cellphone of the same make and model.
    • Same thing with the line of text that he tricks the Rock Box intern into typing in his Mac console. The author actually carried out this exact reverse-shell configuration using his own computers.
  • LEGO Genetics: Completely subverted. The genetic engineering behind the MacGuffin is handled with painstaking realism, including the problems involved with restriction enzymes, plasmid uptake, and the need to use an indicator mechanism. Julie Yen even says at one point, "There's no such thing as a gene for cocaine."
  • MacGyvering:
    • Danny's field modification of the HERF gun to turn it into "the world's most overpowered barbecue lighter."
    • The improvised thermostat for the bacterial incubator he builds with Tina.
  • Noisy Guns: When Ivan enters the hotel room, all his men point their guns at the door to much clickety fanfare, Tarantino-style. Justified, in that the text describes them cocking hammers, unlatching safeties, and pulling back slides.
  • Papa Wolf: Sergey Mukhayev.
  • Shown Their Work: Up to eleven. In fact, anything that isn't explained in the course of the text itself, is covered in the author's notes in the "Hacking" section of the book's official website.
  • Technobabble: Danny tries to use this to outwit Eugene. It doesn't work. He tries it again on Deshaun, but Jason mercifully intervenes with some much, much better roleplaying.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Danny and his crew, by all rights. They're a bunch of computer geniuses, but their decision to interrupt the Mukhayev gang's breakin of Tungsten is based at least partly on their horribly incorrect assumption that playing Splinter Cell gives them any kind of real-world grasp of covert ops. Satish is the only one who has any inkling of just how bad an idea this is.
  • Villains Out Shopping. When the heroes steal and hack into Eugene's cellphone, they find typical mundane emails that you'd find on any normal person's email account: gym membership renewal notices, Pro Flowers holiday reminders, and so on. Tina expresses shock that, "The guy who held me up at gunpoint has a Facebook page? And friends with birthdays and weddings?"
  • Would Hurt a Child: Ivan Zheleznov, in Act III. The only reason he doesn't kill Sergey's daughter outright is that it'd be both more profitable and more of a victory over Sergey to groom her into a sex slave.