By Bill Adams
Humanity is on the cusp of extinction. Deteriorating populations threaten the planetary economy and risk the collapse of humanity itself. In desperation, human-like machines are built to serve where man no longer can.
These are the Automata.
Five thousand years later, humankind no longer walks the Earth, but has ascended beyond biology to float above Earth in a hemisphere-spanning supercomputer. When an anomaly arises on Earth that not even a post-biological civilization can comprehend, XR-345x — a long deactivated top-of-the-line automaton — is awoken in a derelict facility deep within the overgrown jungles of Africa.
With help from Hank — a mysterious holographic A.I. — XR must learn the advent of the automata and the resulting civil unrest, to a war that destroyed humanity’s trust in their would-be saviors, to racial disparities that divided the globe, to love eventually building a bridge that ultimately saved the human race.
At the same time, a violent automaton faction threatens XR, the anomaly, and what they represent for the future of Earth. Time is one thing the automaton does not have.
The Automaton by Ian Young might be one of the best science fiction books I’ve read in many years. It’s won awards, including the 2023 Best Indie Book Award for Science Fiction, so to say this book is merely good, is an understatement to the ‘nth degree. I think it was phenomenal! I devoured this book in three sittings, that’s how much I enjoyed it.
I’m gonna be blunt, I have found it really difficult to write this review because it is nearly impossible to describe this book without giving away major spoilage. But I will try my best because this book needs to be read by the lot of you. You’ll have to read between the lines here to figure anything out. (That said, the less you know, or think you know, about the plot, the more enjoyable it becomes as you read).
What I really enjoyed most about The Automaton was its storytelling structure and style. For authors to tell a story via flashback well, it takes considerable skill, that’s why you don’t see this style used very often. It’s not everyday you see someone come out swinging like Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, but Mr. Young roundly succeeded. And with a twist! As you might have gathered from the title, the main character is an automaton and this unit, aptly named like an automaton should, XR-345x is awakened some five thousand years after humanity has physically left planet Earth to float in the air like a supercomputer of misty blue stuff called Ad Astra (how this unfolds is part of the plot, so just take it and run). XR-345x is told there is an anomaly on the planet that must be dealt with, but before XR can do so, the history of automata and humanity must be learned.
Now, you’re probably thinking, that’s neat, an automaton for a main character, but how will this work? I’m here to tell you, this is where the flashback style kicks in, but not in which manner you might think. This program, called Hank, leads XR to a museum housing the physical remnants of humanity that has been beamed up to Ad Astra via binary code. So once XR gets to said museum, Hank leads the automaton to certain items, and these items generate these flashbacks that starts with the rise of AI, to the first automaton, to the sowing of a resistance against automata, to a great war between humans and automata, to attempted assimilation between the two, to the end of humanity itself, before finally settling on the future of mankind. But what is neat about this is that each section is told via a member of the Wing family throughout this history (from parent to child on down). The Councilor, The Reporter, The Professor, The Soldier, The Ambassador, The Companion, The Analyst, The Departed, and The Anomaly (glean what you can from these titles). Using a singular family to tell this history was pretty compelling and drew me in right away, but what really sealed the deal for me was how a single automaton from the earliest of days became so entwined in the Wing family’s arc. It truly was engrossing to read how this automaton called XR-29 became Isaac, and to see Isaac’s life play out until the very end was quite satisfying. And oh what an ending it was! I had an inkling to what the anomaly was, but didn’t see the woods surrounding the path, that was a treat.
None of that structure/style would have worked if not for the amazing plot and the philosophical questions raised throughout each section. Questions that are currently raised today in the real world. Such as: How far is too far with artificial intelligence? When does the machine become better than humanity? Is humanity forever doomed to be shitty to one another? Will greed ever be put aside or will there always be a wannabe dictator out there? Can a machine love? Among others. This book makes you think but not in a Socrates or Nietzsche way too deep sort of way, but more in a ‘oh crap, that makes a lot of sense’ way as the story unfolds. It doesn’t hit you in the face, but makes your brain start turning like a neural-sphere. And it doesn’t get into crazy hard science stuff, so for someone who just wants to read a good science fiction story but not feel like a numpty who doesn’t understand the hard sciences’ mumbo jumbo, this book fits that bill as well.
The prose is very clean, the pace is quite consistent, and the characters are well-done. I mean, we are essentially meeting a new Wing character plus supporting cast every few chapters but it never felt like a character was short-changed or lacking. And even though we are journeying through this plot with an automaton, it never felt robotic or lacking depth. XR-345x and Hank had the correct mix of machine and human interaction, which was integral for the plot as a whole. And Isaac’s growth from XR-29 to the climax is nothing short of magnificent.
There’s something to be said about a book told from a machine’s point of view, and it’s this: when does a machine become too human to still be a machine?
About the Reviewer
When not writing, Bill is a product manager for a company that tests food using analytical chemistry and microbiology.
During his time at Indiana University, he began to develop his passion for writing, especially within the fantasy genre. It was there, he began to formulate the story that would eventually become The The Divine Godsqueen Coda.
Aside from writing, Bill loves movies and TV shows, especially geek stuff or fantasy. He likes to know all the useless trivia like who played who, and what the stories were behind the curtain. He is a master at Scene It. Bill’s few other hobbies include soccer, a good whiskey, a slice of pizza, and growing a beard. It is the little things he enjoys most.
Bill currently lives in the greater Chicago, IL area with his wife and young son.