Fiction Reviews

Humans, Bow Down

(2017) James Patterson & Emily Raymond, Arrow, £7.99, pbk, 373pp, ISBN 978-1-784-75433-4


In the near future, humans have fought a war with the machines – and lost. Millions were slaughtered. The remaining humans are ‘an endangered species’ - forced to either work as servants or to live in squalid conditions on the edge of ruined cities.

But one teenage girl, Six, has a McGuffin (sorry – ‘device’) that could change everything. Her Q-comp, a computer onto which the memories of her murdered family have been downloaded, contains information that could save humankind. But the leaders of the oppressive machines are determined that this is not going to happen. And obviously, Six is a mal nourished semi literate child, so we can all know how this is going to work out.

Which do you prefer? Black forest ham or pre-processed ‘Billy Bear’ luncheon meat? I ask, because as far as literature goes, this is pretty much the second. You only have to look at the chapter length to realise that this book is written to a strict formula: so many pages, so many words. The characters are much the same, too. Six is a feisty young thing, battling an oppressive society when no one else dares to (because all teenagers think they’re doing that, right?). There is a HuBot that is gradually won over and changes sides, particularly after she is given an emotion chip. Ah, the old ‘robots developing feelings’ trope, how I’ve missed you. You are high on that list of things which editors never want to see cross their desk, like pact with the devil stories and twist in the tale stories where the main character is actually the monster. It’s the sort of book you might use to wean a very young child off ‘The Famous Five’, but that’s about it. But - it’s written by the great storyteller, James Patterson? How can that be?

Actually, it’s not. Turns out that Patterson now runs something more like a renaissance artists' studio, where he has some involvement with the planning, but the heavy lifting is given to an apprentice, in this case Emily Raymond. Which is maybe a nice way of training up your padawans, but stinks a bit of commercial exploitation at pretty much every level. And the biggest problem? The real flaw with ‘Humans Bow Down’ is not the writing style, it is the world building.

In Terminator, the machines are just machines. Except (you know, for Terminators, who look like us, but have no emotions, at least in the first film. And really, should have none in the second but – you know – it’s Arnie.) It’s the same in the Matrix, and obviously, in Ellison’s classic ‘I Have no Mouth And I Must Scream’). But not here - in this, the Robots have just copied Human society, right down to going to church and eating steak. I kept waiting for one to say: ‘I’ve got to go to the little droid’s room.’ They have families, they have children. It makes absolutely no sense.

So I suppose, if your offspring are not yet ready for ‘The Hunger Games’, you might want to give them this as an easy-read appetiser. But if they are beyond the age of twelve and don’t go ‘this world building is utter rubbish’ tear the book from their hands and give them a copy of Noddy instead. They will have earned it.

Sebastian Phillips

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