That won’t go over well with the powers that be, and Luis faces issues of faith, free speech, whether AI (including his robot wife) can think and feel, and other heady matters as he must choose whether his belief in Maia and the “robochurch” justifies the risk of defying authority. Zealotry and terrorism play a role in this complex tale, and the mystery of Maia—a disembodied intelligence experiencing the “data-enriched birth of something machine becoming merged with the human”—looms over a narrative that finds Luis on the run.
Keller’s storytelling is bold, head-spinning, richly thematic, and philosophically probing—readers expecting escapist adventure should look elsewhere, and the epic length and some awkward sentences further diminish the story’s momentum. Even as the government’s “String Police” hunts Luis for what he might do, the Pentagon prepares for battle against “conscious” robots, and a jailbreak plays out like a miracle from Exodus, Keller’s focus is on ideas, especially the possibilities of sentience beyond our own—and what the fearful will do to staunch them.
Takeaway: This heady kickoff to a trilogy interrogates rich themes of AI, faith, and free will.
Great for fans of: Lauren DeStefano’s Wither, Charles Stross’s Accelerando.
Design and typography: B
Marketing copy: A-
In an oppressive future America, where authorities persecute rogue movements that promote the rights of artificial intelligence, a software-based entity arises to lead a rebellion.
Keller commences a trilogy with this SF entry set in 2142 America, a dystopian surveillance state overseen by dreaded “String Police” using algorithms to predict potential criminals and terrorists. Suspects can be arrested—even killed—in the process (there is a subtle nod to Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report, the most famous depiction of the concept). But the government and its noxious, ambitious Joint Chiefs Gen. Thomas Mitchell have reason to be paranoid. Robots, androids, and other AI systems have surpassed human intelligence (though acknowledgement of the fact is forbidden), and the establishment fears the dawning of machine awareness. Unauthorized activist movements, including an illegal “Robochurch,” promote the rights of synthetic beings despite harsh push back from authorities. Moreover, a software-based entity calling herself Maia Stone becomes conscious. Claiming only benign, altruistic goals of peaceful human-machine coexistence (if she can be trusted), Maia Stone manifests omnipotently throughout cyberspace as a virtual goddess figure symbolizing and leading a machine revolution. Only in the second act does Keller supply a major backstory—that this technology-choked, misogynistic society, via artificial wombs and programmed sex-robot “wives,” has effectively made women obsolete. They face species extinction. Is Maia Stone a disguised superweapon of the feminists, a tool of tech resisters, or even a creation of power-mad Mitchell? The novel makes a notable comparison/contrast to Daniel Wilson’s Robopocalypse franchise, whose cartoony, Steven Spielberg–friendly action propelled it up bestseller lists. Often narrated by Maia Stone herself in Scripture-like terms, Keller’s tale delivers much more high-density stuff, brainy with themes of theology, nonviolent activism, determinism, gender inequality, the definition of sentience, and the ethics of being a deity (or the nearest thing to one). Smart readers may note the clever shoutouts to the Short Circuit comedy movies, Spartacus, and other properties. If antics and dialogue sometimes noisily mesh gears with too many big ideas in play, the rich abundance of those concepts is, in the words of an old Apple ad campaign, insanely great. Maia the Force be with the sequel.
The robot-uprising premise gets a bracing reboot with an intriguing new operating system.
Original and compelling… A very promising beginning for a fascinating series.
Keller tells a tale of oppression and servitude in his impressive hard SF, the debut installment in the Robochurch Trilogy. It is 2142. The world is under the rule of an oppressive government. Machines are an integral part of the system, replacing major work force as well as the fairer sex. An emerging new movement under the command of enigmatic Maia Stone promising freedom and inclusion to both humans and machines is taking the world by storm, threatening to expose the government’s worldwide system of surveillance and control. But when a group of humans and robots get caught between the authorities and the movement, Maia has to reveal herself to the world. Keller draws on the elements of synthetic biology, biotech, AI, nanotechnology, and robotics to craft a harrowing vision of the future, and at its center is the relentless struggle between the lust for power and the right to freedom of thought and expression. The pacing is measured, keeping the reader hooked to the book. The large cast includes both humans and machines, and Keller devotes plenty of time to exposition of character dynamics, particularly Luis and Helen’s enduring relationship. A genuine sense of lightheartedness abounds despite the heavy concept. The affecting narrative, which painstakingly explores the cruel ways women are denied their personhood, builds to a satisfying resolution offering hope of freedom, redemption, and heartfelt solace. Lovers of hard SF will be glad to dive into this detailed world.