Warning: this review is littered with spoilers. I can't use spoiler tags here, so if you don't like them I'd recommend checking out my review in one of the other places I post, such as Booklikes or LibraryThing.
I first became aware of this collection when I read Shaykitteh's review of it. I was disappointed when I realized that the only one of the five stories I'd be able to get via Kobo was “PePr, Inc.” (which has since disappeared from Kobo - sorry, fellow EPUB users!). However, Shaykitteh put me in touch with the author, who, hoping I would review it, gave me the book for free.
This review covers each of the five stories individually and is therefore very long. For those who'd like the shorter version, I felt that the first story, “Corrections,” was the worst (maybe 2 stars?), the last story, “Posthumous,” was the best (4.5 to 5 stars), and the others were somewhere in between. None of the stories overlapped in terms of characters, but each one took place in the same world. The author arranged them chronologically rather than in publication order, so that each story was like zooming in on individuals existing at different points on a timeline. Overall, Robot Evolution should work well for those who prefer reading about robots that aren't killing machines bent on the destruction of all humanity.
A few warnings: One of the stories includes an off-page character who's a pedophile, plus disturbing references to the method being used to treat him. One story includes dogs that had been abused in the past and puppies that were euthanized for having Parvo. Also, robots die/are decommissioned in a couple stories.
This story starred a SUPer, a Service and Utility Partner. SUPers were the robots that came before PePrs. They were originally intended to be battlefield medics, but that program was scrapped and they were re-purposed as parole officers. Deirdre, the main character, experienced emotions but had to hide it in order to avoid being decommissioned. She wanted to help Darren, a SUPer who also had emotions, but his current parolee was putting a tremendous amount of strain on him, possibly too much for him to handle.
This story made me wonder if accepting this e-book for review was a mistake. For one thing, it was written in first person present tense (as were most of the others, but I'll get into that more later), and I started reading it while I was partway through a not-very-good first person present tense book. For another, it felt a bit rough, and there were all kinds of little things that irked me.
The POV was a little off – I had trouble believing in Deirdre's status as a parole officer and as a robot. For example, Deirdre was talking to another SUPer in the Probation and Parole office and said “At least these nasty seats won't give us a disease” (13). I could potentially imagine someone who'd once been human making a comment like that, but why would a robot even think to say something like that to another robot?
At the beginning of the story, Deirdre thought Greg, her parolee, was creepy and said that he “makes me want to wave off any human females he comes into contact with or make him wear a big sign that has the word asshole written on it” (15). And yet later he morphed into a nice, friendly guy whose budding relationship with a woman in the Probation and Parole office was “cute.” While I could sort of see what Christy was going for – Greg got a sense of purpose, which improved his mood and made him easier to be around – the change was a little too dramatic and complete for me to fully believe.
The other thing I had issues with was Darren's parolee. It's a bit of a spoiler to say this, but he was a child molester. I'm fairly certain his “treatment” was based more on what would evoke the greatest amount of reader shock and anger than on current recommended treatments. This blatant and forced attempt at reader manipulation annoyed me.
This story made me very wary of the rest of the collection, but thankfully it was by far the worst of the bunch.
In this story, PePrs, personal companion robots, were relatively new. Sandra was an expensive and highly customized PePr who'd been rejected and returned by her “Match,” her owner. Sandra was new enough and in good enough condition that it was probably possible to find a new buyer for her, but in the meantime she had to wait at Perfect Partners, Inc. It was there that she experienced her first emotions and met Georgia, a very unusual PePr.
This was an absolute relief after “Corrections.” Once again, it was written in first person present tense, but the main character's “voice” was much more believable than Deirdre's and the tense choice fit somewhat better.
Of the five stories in this collection, I liked this one either second or third best, even though the ending was kind of upsetting. I felt bad for Sandra and, although I could understand Georgia's wish, I still hated what she had to do in order to accomplish it.
I wasn't sure I'd be able to take this story, considering that it began with the cremation of a litter of euthanized puppies, but it got much better after that point. Ace was a PePr who was created to be an animal control worker. One of the few things he wasn't permitted to do was decide whether an animal should be euthanized or not, but he privately felt that humans tended to give up on stray animals too quickly. He secretly worked with several other PePrs to care for, train, and socialize any stray dogs he caught that he knew would be immediately euthanized if he brought them in to Animal Control the way he was supposed to.
Up to a certain point, this was my secondmost favorite story in the collection, in large part because I loved the dogs and I loved the obvious affection that the PePrs had for them. It was a little idealized, because apparently Animal Control never had problems finding new homes for all the dogs they decided were adoptable, but I don't mind a little idealism when it comes to pets in fiction.
Unfortunately, this story lost a lot of points with me when it came to the romance. It didn't mind that there was romance, but I did mind how it was written. Spoilers from here on out.
At one point Ace mentioned that he was “specifically programmed not to respond to romance or human sexual cues” (123). My first thought was, “Huh, I guess that makes him and all other civil servant robots asexual.” I wish I hadn't had that thought, because then later developments might not have been so upsetting.
Ace began to realize that he really liked being around Jenny, his human coworker. Jenny developed feelings for him but wasn't sure how he felt about her, so she tentatively asked him about it. His answer was probably both more and less than she'd hoped for/expected. I was on board will all of this up until the point when Jenny asked Ace if he'd have the “sexual and romantic interactions” program added if he could, and he said that he would. Not only that, he got some physical modifications as well (civil servant PePrs were built without genitalia).
It got worse. Another civil servant PePr developed feelings for a companion PePr and asked Ace how he felt after the changes, and whether he'd recommend getting the software even if the physical modifications weren't possible. Ace described his feelings after getting the software added as being “a bit like seeing a two-dimensional picture for a long time, only to shift positions and realize it was a three dimensional object the whole time.” (165) And yeah, Ace absolutely thought the PePr should get the program. Because experiencing sexual feelings he hadn't been designed for and could only act on in a limited way would be a good thing?
This story left me feeling torn. On the one hand, a large chunk of it was pretty good and appealed to my animal-loving side. On the other hand, the romantic aspects were like a gut punch. I also wasn't sure that first person present tense was a good choice for this story, although it still worked better here than in “Corrections.”
This was the only story out of the bunch that was written in third person past tense. At this point in the PePr timeline, human-PePr couples weren't just considered okay, they were the norm. The main character, Hazel, was a PePr whose relationship with her Match was beginning to sour.
This story reminded me intensely of CLAMP's Chobits, in which humans sometimes loved their persocoms, person-shaped computers, to the point of shutting out the rest of the world and neglecting their relationships with other human beings. Something similar seemed to be happening to Hazel's Match, as well as the Matches of many other PePrs. I liked “PePr, Inc.,” although I suspect I'd have liked it more if I hadn't read Chobits.
Some of the specifics of the way Hazel and Henry's relationship was starting to fall apart were very creepy, and I was glad that Hazel managed to find a way out of the situation. Even so, this story made me a little sad. The collection went from “The Dogcatcher,” in which a human and a PePr fell in love and spent a happy 1+ years together, to this story, in which PePr-human relationships were falling apart left and right. It made me worry about what “Posthumous,” the next point in the PePr timeline, would be like.
This story starred Edna, an obsolete PePr living a quiet and peaceful life with her elderly dog Charlie. She enjoyed creating stories but couldn't publish them, even though she was technically a free PePr, so instead she told them to her dog or her friends. Her latest project was one that held great emotional significance for her, a book about a girl named Lulu. As she planned it out, she played back (and basically re-experienced) her memories of every instance she and Ethan, her Match, talked about Lulu.
At the start of their partnership, Edna was basically Ethan's assistant (it has just occurred to me that PePrs and their Matches always have names starting with the same letter). As they spent more time together, Ethan began to think of her more as his writing partner. Watching their relationship develop, even if I could only see Edna's side of it, was lovely.
This was absolutely the best story in this whole collection. First person present tense worked excellently here, making Edna's life seem very calm and quiet, but also kind of lonely. I loved her relationship with her dog, and the way her memory playbacks showed her gradually becoming more confident about and secure in her life with Ethan. The only complaints I had were that Ethan and Edna felt overwhelmingly old-fashioned, like both they and their story ideas came from the Golden Age of sc-fi, and that the ending was a bit much. I had hoped that Edna would go on to write new stories, based on ideas that were all her own.
All in all, though, this was wonderful and made me weep buckets.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Chobits (manga series) by CLAMP; Chobits (anime TV series) - Like I said, this series and "PePr, Inc." had a lot in common. Be warned that it's for older readers only, because it includes nudity, near nudity, and references to sex. I've written about the first couple volumes of the manga and the first couple discs of the TV series.
- Millennium Actress (anime movie) - I thought about this movie a lot while reading "Posthumous." It's about a guy who gets the opportunity to interview a reclusive actress who primarily worked from the 1930s to the 1960s. As she speaks, he journeys into the past and experiences those times and events in a gorgeous mix of reality and fantasy.
- Avogadro Corp (e-book) by William Hertling - Hertling's Singularity series follows several points on the timeline of AI development, a lot like Robot Evolution, but its tone is very different and it has a much different take on what that timeline would look like. Avogadro Corp is the first book in the series. However, I should mentioned that I started with The Last Firewall, the third book, and was able to follow along pretty well.
- The Lifecycle of Software Objects (book) by Ted Chiang - A good one for those who'd like a believable look at how AI learning might progress and eventually result in sentient AIs and robots. Like Robot Evolution, it stops at various points in the world's timeline, although Chiang's work follows the same characters from the beginning to the end. I've written about this book. If the price on Amazon shocks you, don't worry, Subterranean Press has made it available for free online.