Top Tier (4 to 5 stars)

Activation Degradation, by Marina J. Lostetter

4.5 stars

I’m a fan of Martha Wells Murderbot Diaries, so I was immediately curious when I read the blurb to this novel:

The Murderbot Diaries makes first contact in this new, futuristic, standalone novel exploring sentience and artificial intelligence through the lenses of conflicted robot hero Unit Four, from Marina Lostetter […]

This comparison was written to draw readers in, lure all the Murderbot fans out there into this novel. It’s a marketing hoax – and a disservice this book doesn’t deserve.

Let’s start with the fake news: Unit Four is not Murderbot, and it never will be. There’s a lot of cynism missing, but there’s also the fact this time around, there is a human component to the bot. I’m not talking organic material (Murderbot has that, too), I’m talking about a human handler. Unit Four is not acting alone. It’s a different setting.

And here’s the part why this comparison is a disservice: It might rise expectations that aren’t fulfilled, and it might leave Murderbot fans frustrated just because it isn’t Murderbot as advertised. And maybe their experience with this novel ends in frustration and at that point. Which would be a shame.

Shame on the publisher for false advertising! This book is good enough on its own!

Because Activation Degradation tells its own unique story, and it’s different from Murderbot. It’s also multilayered. We experience the world through Unit Four, a freshly activated maintenance robot. We learn en passant that Earth has a population of roughly one and a half billion – which immediately makes it clear to me that _something_ must have happened, because that number is way down from today. If you’re anything like me, that alone gives you food for thought.

And there are the invaders. Four was activated prematurely because it needs to fend off an attack by the invaders, without knowing anything about those guys. Its handler refuses to hand out more information than a few spare things, and I’m back to thinking about that reduced population of earth. Right off the bat I’m speculating about the identity of the invaders. And I love it when a book does that!

Invaders. In space. Does that make them space invaders? Yeah, I know, I know, I’m old.

See, there’s no need to tell people this novel is something which it isn’t (like Murderbot), you could simply tell people what it is instead – because it’s good enough on its own.

It’s not a story about a robot. Well, yes, seemingly it is, on the outside. But there’s more to it, a story about loss, questions about ethics and morality, mortality even. Is Artificial Life easily replaceable, can it be sacrificed without thinking twice? I sense some Philip K. Dick here – what makes us human, and could a machine be the better person? It’s a recurring theme for Dick, but if you’re curious now, you should read We Can Build You as a wonderful example.

You can think you care for someone, and still utilize them – abuse them – like a tool.

One of the more philosophical aspects of the book

I’m not going to spoiler you, but maybe you’ve already come to the same conclusion about the identity of the invaders I had. In which case, congrats, we were both right – while we missed the bigger picture behind it. Because the twist wasn’t the twist, it was just the primer to the twist. I love it!

Since I’ve already recommended a book to you during this review, let me add a movie as well. 2010’s Hunter Prey is not the action movie it might look to be at first glance, rather a chamber drama (in German: Kammerspiel), a drama with very few characters and a big emphasis on dialogue. I’m mentioning this movie for 2 reasons – the fact that it has a plot twist to rival this novel (the ending will make you awe, I can practically guarantee it), and the second fact that way too few people know about this movie. You should watch it, it’s a prime example for great storytelling.

In the end, this novel is a great experience. I especially like the fact that this world is not black or white, but many, many shades of grey. How you want to see it is up to you, there are different possibilities – who’s the good one, who’s the bad one, who knows? Not me.

I have two regrets regarding this novel. The first one is I loath the fact that someone thought it would be necessary to put a Murderbot stamp on this book, probably dooming it because it sends the wrong kind of message, inviting the wrong kind of expectations. And the second regret is the fact that it was a page turner, and I went through it too – damn – fast. I don’t want it to be over. Sadly, I got no say.

Anyway, read this book. It’s great, and I give it 4.5 stars – that last half star I hold back because the end felt a little rushed.

By Stefan

father of two, not enough time to read everything I want to read

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