Saturday, July 28, 2007

Inorganic person to the rescue

kw: book reviews, science fiction, cyborgs

On the surface, Breakaway by Joel Shepherd is a thrill-a-minute action novel, with an oversexed cyborg/robot superheroine.

Cassandra "Sandy" Kresnov calls herself an "artificial human", created not born, known in the novel as a GI. the acronym is not explained anywhere that I recall; perhaps it means "Government Issue", just like 20th Century soldiers. Her muscles are not flesh but "myomer", and can stop small-caliber bullets—at some cost to the target—; her bones not apatite-collagen like ours but some kind of "ferrocement" stuff many times tougher. She has vision that can shift to IR or UV as needed, hearing keen enough to count the heartbeats in a room, reflexes that allow her to drill a dozen targets with a dozen bullets in a half second or so, and the ability to run at highway speeds. Yet on top of all that, she eats ordinary food, so there must be some carbon somewhere in her construction. The author doesn't explain.

What the author does rather is present a many-layered tale of politics, conflict, warfare, acceptance and rejection, love, hate, reason and unreason. Sandy is a complex person, just as you or I. She is a newer model of GI, less wooden (but only slightly quicker) than older models. She finds out in the course of the action that a few others at her own level have been produced. One, by turns an opponent and an ally, hints at further models to be developed.

The underlying story is one of love and acceptance. This is most clear during portrayals of Sandy's interior dialog. In her former environment, portrayed in the precursor novel Crossover, she was loved and accepted, but only among GIs; "straights" considered GIs a tool, little more, and her creators didn't reckon on the depth of her perceptions or feelings. In a new environment she has found, amid the many "straights" who fear, hate, or abhor her existence, some who take her at face value, and value her accordingly.

I do wish a different word could be found for non-GI persons than "straight". That word is too thoroughly bound up in Gay and Drug associations. It took half the book before I got over a cognitive jerk upon reading it.

What does it mean to be human? Sandy clearly passes the Turing Test, but it is noted that artificial minds of the more sedentary type (mainframe computer-based) had done so a couple of centuries before GIs were developed. So in a changing world, and a changing human race, what qualities really matter when defining humanity?

The author verges on the heavy-handed in voting firmly for moral quality rather than physical origin to answer this question.

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