Fiction Reviews

Robo Phobia

(2004) Richard Evans, Figo Books, 7.99, pbk, 197 pp, ISBN 0-954-75211-2

When Robophobia arrived I was decidedly intrigued. Richard Evans is not, to my knowledge, exactly known in speculative fiction let alone SF circles. However this appeared to be his second novel with his first being Robophobia's prequel, Machine Nation. The back blurb also sported an Arts Council England logo. Evidently they had provided some support for this work so clearly they reckoned that there was merit here to be had, and besides which I always welcome knowing where my tax money goes in the arts especially with regards to SF. A back-cover promotional quote from a Casey Dorman (an author apparently but not one of whom I am familiar in SF) states, "This book should become a classic among robot aficionados''. So clearly this work had stamps of approval.

The publisher: Figo Books is a small press. In terms of the reader this means little. Like the big publishers, small presses publish both brilliant and more pedestrian fare, and like big publishers they occasionally turn out gems from newcomers. That the book was short was for me a decided plus point as many books these days are unnecessarily over-blown and a good story can be told concisely.

Robophobia is set in the near future, 2029, by which time robots (by which it is meant androids) are endemic throughout industrialised nations as a slave class. A firm, BioMimeteca (who competes with Edosys), is about to launch a new line of robots with emotions and detailed memories; in short they have personalities. However a murder committed by a sexbot threatens the industry. So Biomimetica's psychologist, Alex Sorber, and his partner, are sent to find out what went wrong. That Sorber suffers from bad dreams of being a robot suggests that he is perhaps not the man for the job or something more...

The world portrayed on one hand does not feel particularly futuristic but this is fair enough as we are only talking of a quarter of a century, but equally it is not the present either. We are told (TV news) that there are astronauts stranded on their way to Mars, that you can have a Larry Niven wirehead experience, and that some newscasters are (almost convincingly human) computer constructs. There was little else that spelt future. However this is a world where androids are not that uncommon, so why was not artificial intelligence more pervading in cheaper manifestations? Clearly Evans either wanted to focus on the android dimension without distraction or he had not thought through his plot background implications. His world is a poorly assembled patchwork one.

Assuming that we are meant to focus on the android aspect of the future we are very much sold the slave robot scenario, and this is also mentioned on the back cover. However apart from two or three references little is made of this. Yes we have the humans exploiting the androids but not particularly more so than humans really exploit humans. I did wonder what of androids exploiting other androids and even precursors and other machines? And if this is not a concern why? There were a variety of permutations to be exploited that are not. Yes, historic slavery is mentioned, as is the slavery in Boston, but other than an almost passing reference or two this is not properly explored.

Richard Evans has used a science fiction trope to provide a light weight thriller. This may well satisfy contemporary thriller readers (people who read thrillers set in the present as opposed to books written by present thriller writers). Specifically such readers who do not venture outside of that genre might find something of interest in the novel. As such Robophobia may be a worthy offering(?) However Robophobia almost certainly will not satisfy an SF reader. This in turn undermines the claim that the book would become a 'classic among robot aficionados'. Asimov and Dick, despite the disadvantage of writing nearly half a century ago, covered similar ground in far greater depth and style.

So what is going on? I think Terry Pratchett summed it up recently in Locus (May 2004). He said, with regard to writing SF, that writers have, "got to read in the genre, because we all know what science fiction written by someone who doesn't know about science fiction is like. They've got these 'really great ideas' like Margaret Atwood had - bioengineered organisms, that's a new one! And the [editors] fall for it assuring us that if it is by Atwood or Crichton it's not really horrid science fiction." Well, as equally, we SF readers know such a view also logically leads to the ridiculous supposition that it is impossible to have literary SF as well as entertaining pulp and other varieties. So, will Robophobia make it as a 'literary' work that really is not horrid science fiction? I doubt it. The writing is competent but, it has to be faced, that does not make it soaring and the prose was, it has to be said, little more than pedestrian. This in itself would not undermine the book, but without a world and concepts to explore, let alone a decent plot, we are left to ask what is the reader getting?

I do actually feel quite bad about giving Robophobia such a negative review even if I am teed of with undue hype. After all writers have to start somewhere and as a reader I am prepared to make allowances in the hope that an author will develop. In this case I really do blame the Arts Council of England. Not just because of my taxes but because it really is unthinkably cruel of them to project someone, anyone, so far beyond their apparent abilities. In the specific case of Evans this may have been a shame because as a theme - slavery, robotics, identity and civil rights - there is still plenty of mileage to be had. Indeed in recent science and technology (of which Asimov and Dick would have been unaware) there are analogous issues of life indenture such as in the ethics of embryo research, transplantation and so forth, and these are examples plucked with little thought. Someone should have told Evans that, yes, he is in terms of style a competent writer, but that the plot was not nearly sufficiently developed, let alone properly manifest in the narrative, for publication. The Arts Council has neither done Evans nor the tax-payer any favours, and this is quite unforgivable. The Arts Council probably do not care (and Evans is left directionless). As professionals they really should know better.

Will we see more of Evans, I do not know. Much depends on his ambition. If he wants to be a genre writer then fine. Read the genre. If he wants to cover more than one genre then fine. Read the genres. If he wants lit cred, then think about what exactly is trying to be said and what that will mean to the reader, not to mention developing style beyond competency. If writing is not a burning ambition then go back to the day job. Conversely if he has a calling, something to say and really is aware of what is (has been) said by other writers, then good on him and he should go for it. But the man needs to get himself some perceptive manuscript readers whose comments he can trust and, when the time comes, an agent before pitching to an appropriate market.

Jonathan Cowie

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