This week heralds a new project for Curiosity Quills: video reviews! The CQ Review is here to educate, entertain, and generally mouth off about what I’ve been reading recently.
We’re going to be messing with the format a lot over the next few weeks, trying out slides hows, straight-out video of me talking to the camera (lord help you), potentially an animated version, so your feedback is not only awesome, but will actually shape how these look in future.
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Automaton is the debut novel of Manx primary school teacher Cheryl Davies. It’s published by MP publishing, who are also based on the Isle of Man, which I doubt is a coincidence. I received my copy at the London Book Fair as a free review copy, along with several other interesting titles from MP, so you may be seeing a few reviews of books from them over the coming weeks.
As a person who loathes the voyeuristic, lowest common denominator televisual slush that is reality TV, the premise of Automaton really appealed to me. In the near future, this dross has melded with role-playing games to produce a natural extreme – GameWorld, a real life, isolated island practically constructed out of cameras and microphones, where advanced AI who think they are real humans live out their lives in a citywide soap opera. These AI Characters are controlled by operators in the real world – super-rich or super-lucky individuals who ‘own’ a person in this goldfish bowl of a world – and watched by pretty much everyone else.
But these are not mindless SIMs. The inhabitants of the city are sentient, with true personalities, each with their own desires, thoughts and motivations, but commands can be given that override all of this. Give your Character no orders and she will continue with her life as normal; give her an order than feels natural to her and she will do it without really noticing, as if the idea just came to her; give her an order than goes against her own needs and morals, and she will kick and scream, wail and beg the gods ‘why must this happen to me’, while her limbs do your bidding regardless. An operator can instruct their Character to do pretty much anything that is not criminal, and as a whole, players use this to live out the kind of simple, happy, Pleasentville lives the real world doesn’t accommodate.
The novel follows the lives of two Characters, Lily and Dean, a deeply loving couple within GameWorld. Their love is idealised, almost too perfect, as you would expect from this fantasy world, but it is sensitively written, tender and genuine, making the couple easy to care about and easy to root for. When Dean’s operator, Luke, has a bad day, kicking off a bitter and vindictive mood, he programs Dean to have an affair. The emotional turmoil for Dean of being forced into a betrayal he finds loathsome, combined with the fury of Lily’s operator, Amelia, at the destruction of her beloved Character’s happiness, starts a chain of events that sends ripples through not only GameWorld, but the real world as well, and raises some fascinating moral questions.
Automaton is a short novel. Heck, at 186 pages, compared to some of the epic tomes that helped reduce my vertebrae to a series of rice crispy squares held together with garden twine on my journey back from the London Book Fair, it’s practically a pamphlet; it took a lot longer to produce this review than it did to read the book. But there is a lot of story in this slim novel. It is short not because the plot is sparse, but because the writing is very lean. Every page progresses the plot or provides important character or world information directly connected to the story. In speculative fiction, authors often give in to a temptation to wax lyrical on the details of their carefully crafted universe, wanting you to know its intricacies as well as they do, to the point where it becomes less a story and more a travel guide. Conversely, Automaton takes a need-to-know approach, with every cameo player to cross our stage present just long enough to flesh out their personality and motivations enough to not be a 2D archetype, and the world is described by the protagonists’ interactions with it, rather than through exposition dumps. But the protagonists are so much a product of their environment that you still find out enough through their experiences to get as real grip on the world. Davies has the fundamental writing principle of “show, don’t tell” down to a fine art.
From a production standpoint, Automaton clocks in at a pretty respectable 2.7 EPH – which is to say, errors per hundred (pages), with five errors total. Okay, to be fair it’s probably 2.2 EPH, given most people aren’t as picky about zoology mistakes as me and won’t care (extra points for anyone who spots the ‘error’ I’m referring to here!). As to why this review even contains an error count, as a copy editor, I can’t not see these things, so you’re doing to have to put up with my anal retentiveness as the EPH count becomes a regular feature of these reviews. So… ya know. Bite me. And edit your books properly.
Overall, I would recommend Automaton to… pretty much everyone, actually. Sci-fi or romance fan or both, it does an excellent job of both genres. Go get your copy. Just sayin’.