NOTE: This review is spoilier than most I write. It’s not much of a shock when I tell you that the good guys win, but spoilier than that is my discussion of the relationship between the main guy and the machine overlords. (For one, he would never use the word ‘overlord’. Ever.) Anyway…
A week or two ago I was with my sweetie and we dropped by her old office and visited her former coworkers. The subject of her growing ebay business came up, and my sweetie mentioned that she has been hitting the local thrift stores regularly, finding the good stuff, and selling it to people who live in places where they don’t have thrift stores of this magnitude. “It’s too bad there’s not a Salvation Army nearby,” she lamented.
Her friends were swift to correct her in this matter, telling her of a massive Salvation Army Depot not far away. An hour later (after a yummmy sandwich at Togo’s), we found the place, and an unscheduled shopping expedition was afoot with me in tow.
Now, I’m not shopping deadweight by any means, moaning and dragging my feet as we make our way around the store, but I knew that on this day the right place for me while the light of my life combed the cast-off fashions was in the book section. Happily, the book section was next to the comfy sofa section. Perfect. I perused the offerings on the shelves (not as good as I had hoped), but in those circumstances I was not looking for the best book to own, I was looking for something I could sit and read right then. I picked up Protektor, by Charles Platt, plunked myself down on a sofa and dug in. Distant future. Machines handle everything — people are left to eat, watch TV (super-duper TV plugged straight into their senses), and find new ways to have orgasms. It’s ok to do more with your life, but not necessary. Those with the talent and the drive to provide original TV shows and creative sexual opportunities can get fantastically wealthy.
People can live forever, unless something goes wrong. Not surprisingly, something is going wrong.
The test of the book’s mettle came later when it was time to leave the store. Back on the shelf or into the basket? Into the basket it went and Protektor had a new home.
The story takes place on a planet mostly occupied by mining machines, except for a tropical paradise island that has become an amalgam of Hollywood and Las Vegas. Movie stars mingling with hedonistic pleasure seekers. Only, things aren’t quite working as smoothly as they always have in the past. The machines that control everything are getting overloaded periodically. Air cars collide. A building falls over. People are getting killed. For-real killed with a side dish of pain and suffering.
Tom McCray has been called to the planet to investigate. He works for the machines, assisted by a super-robot specially designed to be able to hack into any system. Soon after he arrives, the mechanical mayhem is augmented by a series of murders. Evil is afoot, indeed.
McCray starts with a single assumption: That whatever is going wrong, the problem is rooted in people, not machines. Someone is deliberately sabotaging the system, and it’s his job to find them and undo the harm. The machines themselves are simply not capable of doing anything that would harm humanity. Not capable. It is his mantra, spoken without the faintest hint of irony. He believes.
Tom is a loner but he enlists the help of a local reporter, who is an attractive woman. (No surprise; everyone can be attractive if they want to be.) She also turns out to be one tough customer who got where she is through hard work and she’s not going to take shit from anyone, even if they do have a super-robot and are the only thing standing between her planet and the complete collapse of civilization. I liked her. Not surprisingly, so does Tom. Happily, that doesn’t get in the way of the story.
Other things do get in the way, however, like the occasional sidebars explaining how this world came to be. There is a side explanation of how it came to be that there is no such thing as privacy and why that doesn’t bother anyone. There’s another about how mankind ceded almost all governmental function to the machines, and another about the tiny minority who would rather work and die of old age so they can be independent of the computers. Eventually I got the idea and started skipping the backstory sidebars. I figured I could go back and read them if the story world interested me enough.
At the heart of this benign mechocracy is a set of ten rules that are programmed into the core of every machine, from doorbell to mainframe. It is those ten rules that make the entire system completely and unironically benign. I started to read the ten rules, which are way more complicated than the good ‘ol Three Laws of Robitics, but then I glazed over. I felt like I was reading a legal document. Computers can’t harm people, yadda yadda yadda, a bunch of stuff that looked like it was put in by a lawyer who had studied I, Robot for his dissertation. Not sure, there might have been some interesting bits wedged in there but I pretty much skipped over them, substituted Asimov, and all was well.
Aside from the asides, this turns into a pretty cool thriller/mystery, with millions of lives at stake, different factions with their own overlapping agendas that make the plot harder to figure out, and general world-descending-into-chaos yumminess. It’s told in the first person, which helps occasionally but more often harms the narrative, especially when our main man says “I knew that was fake, but I couldn’t say anything.” If you want to withhold information from the audience that the main character knows, at least don’t put us in a position where we hear his reasoning about everything else as he deduces it. It undermines the character’s voice to hide tidbits like that from us.
In the end, the good guys win. (I suppose that was technically a spoiler, but come on. The good guys win.) There are some surprises, some twists and turns, and after McCray gets around to telling us all his secrets we have a confrontation and the bad guys are apprehended. But there’s still work to do! The systems must be repaired! Our hero takes the criminal hacker mastermind up to his ship where they… write software.
I will grant that this is probably one of the most realistic parts of the story — the damage caused by a hacker is going to be fixed by one or more people writing code. But there’s a reason hacker-vs-hacker movies are unrealistic. Realistic is boring. “Code! Code like the wind!” It’s a bit of a letdown after the shootout. Lacking dramatic tension. Most of the programming scene, placed in the narrative where the climax generally occurs in a story like this, I skipped over, substituting in my head, “what with this and that, they fixed it.” And everything was fine.
(To be fair there is an interesting tidbit as the good guy and the guy who wrote the original virus prepare to release the antigen – a modified version of the original virus. The code for the virus was elegant and beautiful, while the new code, code that will be inserted into every doorbell and mainframe in the human universe, is rather an ugly hack. But it’s expedient. And that’s how our software matures.)
Everything was fine, and machines went back to being incapable of harming humanity — without any irony, without the other shoe dropping, without McCray getting egg on his face for believing in his mechanical masters so blindly. I’m trying to remember any stories since I, Robot in which technology (with the proper fundamental restraints) is so unequivocally good. Sure art and science have pretty much stagnated, but that’s a small price to pay for immortality and lives without want.
Does the boy get the girl? That, dear reader, you will have to find out for yourself.
Often when I get to this point in my ramblings about a book, it looks like I must have hated the thing. This story was for me like a three-bean salad where I didn’t like one of the kinds of bean. I enjoyed it for the most part, learned to avoid some of the yucky beans, and ultimately I was satisfied. The people act like people, the machines act almost but not quite like people, and there is one hell of a mess our boy has to resolve. If you see this book at your local thrift store, by all means drop the half-buck and let it entertain you for a few hours.
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