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The Life Engineered, by JF Dubeau - Elf M. Sternberg
The Life Engineered, by JF Dubeau
I really, really wanted to love The Life Engineered by JF Dubeau. The back cover sounded exactly like my kind of thing— a posthuman mystery in which the a long-dead police officer finds herself resurrected in the body of a first responder robot; humans have long since disappeared from the galaxy and she is soon thrust into a shadowy war between factions with very different ideas about what humanity's legacy will be.

And the cover art is gorgeous.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, I really wanted to hate it. A story outline like the one above has so much potential. Like many a book or movie, there's a brilliant idea hiding in the center of this book that's screaming to get out if only a more mature or skilled writer were allowed to develop it.

The book is either far too long or far too short. It has two introductory chapters, the first of which sketches (and I do mean sketches) out the setting: two humans have a dialogue about whether or not they entrust their robots to take care of the galaxy while humanity goes into hiding, and decide not to tell the robots where humanity's cryogenic creches will be constructed; they have to go into hiding because a series of neutron star bursts are making the galaxy uninhabitable— they discuss whether or not this is deliberate– but they're wary of their AI children. The second shows our heroine in her 21st century existence, and its conclusion is one of those painful "character development" scenes where the heroine gets beaten/raped/abused to give her a "reason to fight."

The rest of the book is a ham-handed expository sequence of our first-person POV heroine telling us what happens next. In a lot of ways, the book reads more like the treatment for an fantastic third-person POV science fiction story like Mass Effect or Dead Space III, only "with robots!". Events leap from setting to setting, incident to incident, with sometimes only very tenuous connections. There are very few surprises in the book, very few twists and reveals. Technological abilities and limitations exist only at the need of the story, and not due to careful consideration of the universe Dubeau had crafted in the previous chapters. Word-by-word, the style is clunky and prosaic, with no attempt to escape, expand, or even embrace the dialect and idioms of the writer himself.

What I wanted was something that pointed to the kind of story Iain Banks or Greg Egan would give us, with lyricism, panorama, character and depth. Banks, Egan, and company didn't jusnt plow the ground toward viable transhumanist writing; they did it with enthusiasm, with panache, with style. But plow they did; they showed us where the road points and they dared (and continue to dare) the rest of us to come up to the standards they've set on this new ground.

What I got was the awkward retelling of a game session from Steve Jackson's Transhuman Space RPG with some clumsy FTL handwavery added for convenience. There are so many moments in the book which are just disappointing, where the author had a chance to show us how magnificent the sights are, rather than having the main character tell us about its magnificence, or to give us revelation in carefully crafted dialogue rather than just reel it out as another expository lump.

In the end, I guess I... liked (?) the book. It ends with a promise that there's more to come, and there's so much hope in this story— not in the story itself, but in writer's potential to mature into something more than just another RPG-esque chronicler. (Not to put down RPG chroniclers; Steven Brust has made an entire career out of it. But he's good at his job!) May Dubeau have a long and happy life; he had patrons for his effort and they deserved better.

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Current Mood: disappointed disappointed

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