Wednesday, April 22, 2015

And Then There Were ... The Six

The concept of human consciousness being transferred to a robotic body isn't exactly a new trope in science fiction.  In the YA novel The Six by Mark Alpert, the neurological patterns of six teens are copied and then uploaded to robotic bodies called Pioneers.




I'm trying to improve in bringing out positive aspects of books that I didn't, on the whole, enjoy.  Although I don't personally know anyone with muscular dystrophy, the author seemed really committed to portraying the disease accurately.  Adam, the main character, isn't a martyr or a saint (which is, too often, the role that a person with a disability is assigned in fiction).  He's a kid who used to be able to run and walk and go to school and now he knows he won't live much longer.  Even though Ryan and Brittany used to be his best friends, they disappeared from his life once Adam stopped attending school.  Adam describes being fed and diapered by his father with a mature acceptance that is so matter-of-fact that it's also exceedingly sad.  Until he becomes a Pioneer, Adam is actually a pretty sympathetic character.

I suppose you could also say that this book is fast-paced, if your definition of fast-paced is LOTS OF STUFF THAT HAPPENS IN A ROW.  It doesn't really make sense, mind, but it happens very quickly.  People are calling this cinematic, and I just don't get that.  For me, a book has cinematic action if I can picture it in my head.  I don't think that's an unreasonable definition.  In The Six, the robots flew around and did ... stuff, but I just couldn't see it in my mind.  It was jumbled.

The Six tackles a lot of topics and I think the net was cast just a bit too wide; had the focus been narrower, it would have been a much tighter story with more room (can one have room in a story?  Metaphorically, I suppose) to spend on characteriztion.  We begin with an AI named Sigma escaping the lab where it was created and holing up in a Russian missile base.  It sends a message to the U.S. Government that it will protect itself by firing nuclear missiles at major population centers.  Before vacating the U.S., however, Sigma attempts to kill its creator, Thomas Armstrong, and his son Adam, who uses Mad Coding Skillz to create virtual reality sims of football games and his longtime crush, Brittany (yes, creepy).  This kicks the good doctor in the pants, and he brings Adam to a super-secret military base in the San Juan mountains (aside: What is up with the current San Juan/Telluride/Ouray obsession?  I've read like three books in the past few months that involve that area.  This one didn't mess the geography up as much as the last book, though).  There, Adam meets other terminally ill kids, including a girl named Shannon (new crush alert), who have been selected to have their consciousnesses duplicated by nanoprobes and then uploaded into large, clunky robots.  Cue the ruminations about what makes us human, the existence of souls, etc.

Okay, are we done with that?  Good.  So Adam and five other candidtes undergo this procedure.  Not all of the other kids are exactly ... mentally stable, however.  Anyway, the rest of the book is basically: the kids explore being robots, they fight, Sigma escalates its behavior, the Pioneers try to stop it, some of them die, but Adam is a Grade A Hero (American-style!).  Le sigh.

I have to hand to to the author that he kept me reading, but I must also disclose that I kept reading to see if things would improve (spoiler: not really).  I wanted this to be a cool YA stepping stone to books about AIs like Iain M. Banks' Culture novels or Neal Asher's Ian Cormac books.  Alas, I got a jumble of techie-speak and some exceedingly dull characters.  If Thomas Armstrong really loves Adam, why would he create a program that would, essentially, kill his own son?  Why doesn't he afford him dignity as someone with an illness instead of trying to make him perfect?  Why doesn't he care about his wife's feelings?  Seems like a real jerk to me.

Plus, this novel is set only a few years in our future.  I find it difficult to believe that the singularity (an AI becoming sentient) would happen in only a few years.  I also find it difficult to believe that the scientists working on AIs in this version of the future wouldn't really worry about the AI feeling threatened by humans.  Let's see: there's one of it, and billions of us.

It's nice that Alpert tried to make the Pioneers diverse, but there are a lot of traps that the narration falls into here.  The African-American coding genius is from Detroit and named DeShawn.  The über-hot punk girl has "chocolate-milk skin" (skin color is not food, people).  Oh, but Zia's not black.  Adam helpfully observes, "I like her name.  It sounds Middle Eastern."  Which means ... what, exactly?  The Middle East is actually a pretty big place with loads of different cultures.  A quick jaunt into name meanings shows that Zia is actually an Arabic masculine name.  Hmm.  Is it so hard to say "Arabic" instead of "Middle Eastern"?  Plus, at one point, Adam says a shorter person "looks like a midget."


Finally, I just had so much trouble following the movement of the story once the Six become Pioneers.  Very quickly, they transfer their consciousness to various machines and drive them around and do stuff and save the world with a handy bit of code.  Also, the whole idea of the teens falling for each other while not having physical bodies but being able to share memories is a whole other level of ick.

I have to admit that I was intrigued by the ending, but overall, this was not a winner for me.  Singularity, indeed!

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