(2015) Alex Lamb, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 448pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20608-3
Kuno Monet is a colony planet citizen, who like many of his world is genetically enhanced. In his case his enhancements are furthered by an implanted hardware module and together these give him the ability to interface with computer systems. This talent is particularly useful on warships where he can control guided missiles and attack drones. And his world needs warships as the colony worlds are under threat from Earth.
Earth has had its resources depleted and experienced many decades (centuries even?) of internal conflict but for a while now has been united under a fascist theocracy led by the Prophet. Earth is now looking out to the colony worlds, many of which it has taken over, for resources and to spread the word of the Prophet. Needless to say, the theocracy does not approve of genetic modification which it regards as a blasphemy that undermines the purity of the human race.
Following an attack by an Earth force on Kuno's home system, it has become clear that Earth has surprisingly developed some new technology that looks as if it will give them the edge over the remaining free colony worlds.
Kuno joins a new ship that is sent to scout a star system now controlled by Earth. They discover that Earth has discovered an alien artefact that has enabled them to directly tap stars for energy. Discovered, the scout-ship is chased out of the system and into an uncharted area of space. There they discover a belt of ancient, deserted spacecraft of unknown origin and their own encounter with alien technology…
I have to say that on reading Roboteer I was left with decidedly mixed feelings: something that is not conducive to writing a useful review for potential readers.
Very much on the plus side, the story is rather engaging. It is a widescreen space opera employ trope treatments common to the best of such novels currently written by the likes of Banks, Reynolds, McAuley et al.
On the negative side, the writing is just a little clunky and the characters just a tad superficial for my tastes. This seems a less sophisticated and refined form of space opera we have become accustomed to in recent years: a new Banks, Reynolds, McAuley et al Alex Lamb certainly is not; he is more Robert Sawyer or Gary Gibson. Of course this can be a positive as such books can be best tackled at speed to even out the bumps and so we get more of a rollicking read.. Furthermore, some of the things that initially put me off were later explained, which left me wondering why we were not told earlier. For example, while the early scenes on Earth were competently written and engaging, the characterisation of the colonists in the book's first third was decidedly facile: these individuals seemed almost childish, prone to outbursts, and seemingly unable to think through the consequences of their interactions with their peers. However, roughly a third of the way in we were told that the colonists had personality problems that arose because they had been genetically enhanced: their personalities really were childish and they were prone to outbursts. Why didn't Lamb tell us this earlier?
This is Lamb's debut novel and all this may be because he has not yet quite caught his stride. As said, the story is fine. Indeed more than that, his subject matter is germane to a number of real-life social and science-and-society issues. We, in the early 21st century, are seeing some disturbing theocracies what with conflict between the Abrahamic religions and the shocking treatment of women and seχual minorities by some states. (Though it should be noted that such treatment comes from bigoted individuals and not the principal themes of core religious teachings which do preach tolerance in-between occasional bouts of thunder and lightening. Also that some of the non-religious secular are also known for seχual-intolerance, misogyny and, indeed plain common criminality.)
And then there is the whole genetic modification thing. Consider the real-life venomous dislike of genetic modification by the extreme end of the European 'green' movement, or even the more general distaste for eugenics even though this is more understandable given its association with a certain, fortunately short-lived, early-to-mid-twentieth century western European political regime that thrust the world into war and committed atrocious acts up to and including genocide… So the issues Lamb are exploring are not at all trivial. Just change the light in which some of the protagonists are viewed and the novel's forces of good could become those of evil and vice-versa. Now, don't get me wrong, Lamb has not written a novel with a subtext that explores these issues to such depths, but I did wonder whether he would, or could? At the end of the day, what we have with Roboteer is a reasonable, mid-list offering. This is actually a fair achievement with which most writers, let alone debut writers, would be very pleased. Furthermore, this is only Lamb's first book, and it looks like we may perhaps be getting a follow-up novel set in the same universe. If this is so, who knows where he will take us and how he will develop as an author. This is a writer worth keeping an eye on. As Alex Lamb's writing, plot pacing etc., seemed to have settled in in this book's latter half, it will genuinely be interesting to see how the next in the series will turn out.
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