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Ulysses Dietz | 1564 comments Brobots
By Trevor Barton
Published by the author, 2016
Cover design by the author
Four stars

“What does your heart tell you?” Strange question for a lobbying scientist to ask a robot.

Near-future sci-fi always makes me a little sad, because it seems within reach, and yet I know I’ll be dead by then. Trevor Barton’s “Brobots” pops us into America of the 2060s, a world radically changed by technology, yet somehow still very familiar. On a construction site, one of the workers takes a header off a girder onto a pile of rubble. Turns out, his battery died and his warranty is just passed. Rather than spend the money on a new battery, they just put him in the dumpster and file a complaint with the manufacturer.

The robot is a model D Sentient, produced by Brobotics. His name is Byron. And he’s cute. His inanimate carcass is rescued from the dumpster by Jared, a computer programmer (code monkey) out walking his dog, Artemis. Jared is a compulsive fixer. He is shocked by the waste of a costly piece of machinery, but also attracted by Byron’s cute button nose, hazel eyes and burly bear-cub physique.

And thus begins a saga of love, friendship, and techno-political science fiction that is by turns charming, fascinating, and philosophically rather pointed. It is surely the first book I’ve ever read that deals with issues of AI (artificial Intelligence) and explores the idea of the spark of humanity. Not being a sci-fi aficionado, my only personal interaction with AI characters has been through HAL9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and Lieutenant Data from the 1990s Star Trek series. Somewhere in between those two is C3-P0 from Star Wars. I rather loved Data, and his increasingly humane non-humanity. He also seemed completely gay to me. HAL was just a nightmare of technology gone rogue, and the droids in Star Wars were just robots – interesting and amusing in their almost-humanity. I raise that point, because Barton brings that very thing up in “Brobots:” the Sentients are accepted by society as long as they stay in some carefully defined role that seems to suit their artificial status. They can be useful, they can be interesting or amusing. Once they branch out into human realms, expressing human needs, they begin to cut too close and people begin to fret.

The developing relationship between Jared and Byron is at the center of Barton’s substantial narrative, but it is not the point of the narrative, which is what pulls this book away from M/M and into gay lit/sci-fi. The real guts of the story is Jared’s emerging understanding of the nature of these complex, technologically miraculous machines, as well as the Sentients’ awakening to the possibilities of the intelligence they have been given. Overlaid onto this plot is an international military-industrial complex fantasy that feels too plausible to laugh off (especially in the strange political moment at which I write this, January 22, 2017).

If I have a complaint about “Brobots,” it would be that Barton piles on a great deal of new material at the end of the book – introducing new characters and new plot points that were really interesting, but felt rather crowded and rushed. There is something of a climactic moment at the end that felt just a bit off to me, because it was dropped in almost out of nowhere. If somehow Barton had insinuated hints of this earlier on, it wouldn’t have felt so jarring (at least to me).

I should also note that I was slightly bemused by the fact that Barton hasn’t made any attempt to disguise his British English. The book is supposedly set in Colorado in the US, but everyone speaks a language full of British colloquialisms. I tried to pretend that in 50 years we’ll all speak that way, but it didn’t really work. I’ve read lots of British books of late, so the language is perfectly familiar; but it sort of broke the sense of place. I’m not sure why Barton didn’t set the book in the UK, since the American location didn’t seem to matter hugely (except, perhaps, for the need for isolated places).

All that said, I loved this story and the premise behind it. There’s no mystery that the Sentients are a metaphor for any marginalized group that’s ever struggled for equal rights. At the core of what I liked best in “Brobots” is the eternal puzzle of why human beings, the most complex and miraculous of all biological machines, can become monsters.

A second book is promised, and I look forward to it with great pleasure.

message 2: by Trevor (new) - added it

Trevor Barton (trevorbarton) Revised and updated. (Some US-based friends have offered to help me proof read for book #2!)

message 3: by Trevor (new) - added it

Trevor Barton (trevorbarton) Countdown Deal on the Kindle edition of Brobots starts on Wednesday and finishes on Sunday at 10pm PST.

Signed limited paperbacks for $30 during March 2017 *only* .

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