Friday, 3 September 2010

Twisting The Night Away [Review: Twisted Metal]

A planet inhabited by mechanical creatures: self replicating humanoid robots that have evolved beyond their mysterious origins and built up their own cultures and societies. War is brewing between the two city states of Turing and Artemis, the former valuing individuality, sentience and creativity, the latter militaristic, fascist and impersonal. Welcome to Penrose, the harsh and unforgiving setting of Tony Ballantyne’s Twisted Metal.

The robotic biosphere of Penrose is imagined in rich detail – in addition to the humanoids with many variant body forms, there are robotic worms and other non-sentient mechanical creatures. Organic animal and plant life is present but sparse. Multiple viewpoints allow a broad exploration of the main cultures of the Shull continent – giving the sense of a complete overview of the workings of Penrose. However when the conquering robots travel further north they make some surprising discoveries.

Tony Ballantyne has given his robots human-like personalities and motivations, as well as a form of sexual reproduction and lovemaking – a male robot produces wire which the female robot twists into a functional robot mind. At the same time this is not simply a story about humans with mechanical bodies as many of the dilemmas faced by the robots go to the heart of their robotic, non-human nature. The storyline is brutal and desperately sad in places, particularly when dealing with Artemis’ processing of its captives and converts after a war: male captives are forced to kill each other or choose which of their fellows should be killed, while females are subject to the robotic equivalent of systematic rape as they are trained to create the perfect cloned Artemis citizens. However this has a bearing on the robots’ origins – did they evolve on Penrose? Or, were they originally designed to produce identical offspring? And if so, from where does the mother robot get her instinct to make her child’s mind unique?

On a lighter note, the book namechecks and references famous roboticists and artificial intelligence scientists, real and fictional, at every turn, from the planet, Penrose, to the hero of one plot strand Karel, and his robot wife Susan who I presume is named for Asimov’s Susan Calvin. In Turing City, a form of Turing test serves as the citizenship exam.

This novel has a great concept and setting, with lots of original elements and a strong plot. Some elements are clearly contrived in order to make parallels with human society – particularly the mode of reproduction – but even this is cleverly done. It’s a WALL-E or Robots for grown-ups, and I would much rather see a movie version of this made than more Terminator or Transformers numbers. The story continues in the sequel Blood And Iron, reviewed here by Cybermage.

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