Saturday, April 10, 2021

Alpha Bots by Ava Lock

Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is one of the most original, entertaining, and amusing stories I've not read in a long time. By that I mean it was an audiobook, so I didn't even have to read it - I just sat back and listened - and laughed my ass off. There were some minor issues with it, but nothing to take away from the brilliance of the story and the hectic way it was told.

On top of this, the reader, Laci Powers, was awesome in the role and really put soul into the story and life into Cookie, the main charcter. I'm not a series fan, but I did secure the sequel to this before I even finished the first volume which is highly unusual for me. I remain nervous about sequels, and rightly so, because I did not enjoy the sequel at all. I'll review that next.

Be warned that this first volume pulls no punches, and is as explicit with language as it is with sex talk, which is to say there's a lot! That was one of the most amusing parts for me: to hear the naïve and softly-spoken Cookie talking so frankly and cussing like a sailor as she became liberated from her servitude, but this may bother other readers. I enjoyed her liberation, and I think it was made all the more amusing by Laci Powers's take on the character, too. The subtle snipes the author frequently took at male chauvinism and the genderist world order were wonderful.

Cookie Rifkin is a life-like AI robot designed to emulate a woman and to be servile and submissive to men, specifically her husband Norman. She's a gynoid if you will, but in the books they're referred to as womanoids. The thing is that, in New Stepford (get the reference?!), there are no human women, just human men. There are no children either. None of the womanoids think this is odd, that is until Cookie starts a book club with four other womanoids (Chrissy, Isabel, Paula, and Rita, all of whom have their own stories to tell), meets Wayne, finds her freedom, and becomes a startling rebel. Frankly, I think the story would have been even more powerful without Wayne. To me he was an annoyance, but this is what we have here.

The story begins innocently enough in a small homage to The Stepford Wives (and note to some ignorant reviewers: that was a novel from the same author who wrote Rosemary's Baby long before it was ever a movie!) where Cookie is wakened - and eventually woke - by the bed shaking and realizes that her husband is masturbating. This inexplicable and unexpected event in Cookie's life is what sets her off on her trail of discovery and eventual insurgency.

After meeting Wayne, Cookie encounters Maggie, who appears to be some sort of slacker police officer, but the more Cookie learns, the more she realizes that not everything in New Stepford is as it seems at first sight, and her encounters with Wayne and Maggie are not accidental. There is much more going on here, and over time, Cookie and her friends learn what real networking is, and they're not so much going to eat the forbidden fruit as overturn the entire apple cart. But it's not going to be a smooth ride by any means.

As far as problems are concerned, I said they were minor. There are times when Cookie's 'functionality' is described in ways that make her seem fully human, and at other times makes her seem very robotic, so this to me was a paradox; like for example she seems to eat and drink and breathe although she seems not to need to do any of that. The author never really went into any of the details of how she worked which was fine to begin with, but later, when Cookie learns how to upgrade herself, she seems much more robotic than she did when the story began, so it felt a bit like the rules of the world were changing, and this was a bit confusing, but it wasn't enough of a problem to detract from the story for me.

Also the upgrading is a bit problematic in another way. I don't want to give away spoilers, but in a way it's reminiscent of a time travel story where something goes wrong in the past and it would seem perfectly simple to just go back before that time and nip the problem in the bud, but the author makes up some arbitrary rule why that's not possible and it spoils the story for me. In the same way in this story (which involves no time-travel let me be clear!) Cookie's upgrades seem endless, but when she could have used a relatively minor upgrade to get her out of a tricky situation, she seems not to think of doing the very thing that could solve her problem. This rather demeans Cookie's agency and her inventiveness.

It made for a bit of a deus ex machina situation at some points and a 'Cookie has to be dumb not to think of that' at others, with problems being very easily solved at times, whereas at other times, they seemed insoluble by using the same convenient means. It was a bit inconsistent. I was enjoying the story enough that I let that slide, but this may bother some readers. Additionally, there is no real LGBTQIA angle to this story. There's a tease here and there, like the author is intrigued by Sapphic stories, but is too afraid to explore one for herself; so this is essentially hetero all the way

Overall though, I highly commend this story as beautifully done, entertaining, amusing, and even educational. I'm just sorry the sequel was a different thing altogether.