'An Unnatural Life' by Erin K. Wagner
To Kill A Mockingbird but in space
Murderbot meets To Kill a Mockingbird in Erin K. Wagner's An Unnatural Life, an interplanetary tale of identity and responsibility.
The cybernetic organism known as 812-3 is in prison, convicted of murdering a human worker but he claims that he did not do it. With the evidence stacked against him, his lawyer, Aiya Ritsehrer, must determine grounds for an appeal and uncover the true facts of the case.
But with artificial life-forms having only recently been awarded legal rights on Earth, the military complex on Europa is resistant to the implementation of these same rights on the Jovian moon.
Aiya must battle against her own prejudices and that of her new paymasters, to secure a fair trial for her charge, while navigating her own interpersonal drama, before it's too late.
I always love a good android story, so I was eager to request this one from NetGalley. (Insert disclaimer about how I got a free copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.) It’s actually a novella, rather than a novel like I initially assumed, so it’s a pretty quick read.
To be honest, I didn’t really like this story. For one thing, it didn’t feel much like an android story. The android character really felt like he could have been any kind of person at all. I found it very hard to relate to or like the android character, largely because he is not actually the main character, and we don’t see enough of him to even form an opinion for quite a while. And even when we do see him, the author doesn’t make much attempt at all to get us to like him or find him sympathetic for his own sake. If the set up had been exactly the same, but the character of the android was immediately likable and sympathetic, where we as the reader automatically believe him and think it’s terribly unjust for the people to have convicted him in such a biased way, I would have been much more engaged in the story. As it is, I don’t care about the android character enough to want him to get his appeal. In fact, when the main character agrees to help him—at great risk to herself—he doesn’t even act grateful. If anything, he’s actively unlikable. In fact, the more we learn about him, the less I liked him or had sympathy for him (he was an adulterer, for one thing). (Later on in the story, the android aspect comes into play due to programming being significant, but it wasn’t enough to make him feel like an android to me. It could have as easily been a human with some kind of override chip in his head.)
Maybe the author is trying to make the point that people shouldn’t have to be likable in order for us to want them to get a fair trial, which is a true enough point. But that comes back to this being a message story instead of an entertainment story. The author seems to be trying to teach us something rather than to entertain us, and that’s just not the kind of story I enjoy. Maybe others do.
The bigger problem, though, was that the whole story felt like the author was trying to specifically make some kind of political or social message and was deliberately using androids to represent any kind of minority group among human society. In other words, it felt like a message story. As someone who enjoys android stories but not message stories, I didn’t like it.
The idea behind this book reminds me of the Star Trek TNG episode “The Measure of a Man”, where Data (an android) is put on trial to basically decide if he is enough of a real person to deserve human rights. In that case, it was basically just the right of self-determination, the right to decide not to follow an order which would have . . . if I’m remembering correctly . . . resulted in basically his death and de-person-hood in the name of scientific progress. That was, I think, a very effective and entertaining story about androids and their place in human society.
This book, by contrast, was not nearly as effective or entertaining. It wasn’t about the androids’ rights, really. In this book, they already have may of the same legal rights as humans, including the right to not be murdered and even the right not to have their memories accessed without their permissions. And the thing that the android is on trial for isn’t simply his right to be a person but for murder. This is part of what made it feel not at all like a real android story to me but like a message story about whoever the minority group in a society of humans is. The comparison to To Kill A Mockingbird in the publisher’s description pretty well reinforces this. I know a lot of people like sci-fi to be a way of using metaphors to talk about modern-day issues, but I like sci-fi when it’s just sci-fi. In other words, I want androids to be their own thing. I want them to be androids. Not stand-ins for something else.
When the truth of what happened is eventually explained, I had to wonder why the android character didn’t just tell the whole truth and let them access his memories. Seems like it would have cleared his name. And yeah, someone might have gotten in trouble for something, but it shouldn’t have been murder, given the situation.
So, in short, this was too much of a message story and not enough of an actual android story for me. As someone who loves androids, this didn’t hit any of the right buttons for me, personally. Someone who enjoys sci-fi as social commentary will likely enjoy it more.