Robota by Chiang, Doug & Orson Scott Card, 2003

Robota by Chiang, Doug & Orson Scott Card - Book cover from

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Though the venerable name of Orson Scott Card is associated with this week's book, the project was the brainchild of its illustrator, Doug Chiang. If you believe the introductory material, and I have no reason not to, Chiang has been playing with the concepts behind the story for the better part of his life. I suppose its just kismet that he was able to go on to such wild success as a graphic artist, eventually becoming an art director at LucasArts and managing the art projects for the second trilogy of Star Wars movies. This story concerns itself with Earth of the future, rather than a galaxy of the past, though. With a serpentine plot, this book has just enough problems with it to take it down to an average rating, but also has art that is fantastic enough to catapult it back to the top; at least for some. For me, three out of five stars, though without the illustrations it would rate much lower.

Though the plot of Robota takes quite a few twists in the third act, the basic story is this: Set thousands of years in the future, the Earth has become a garden, populated more with the ruins of cities than actual living beings. During the eighteenth century a race of beings called the Olm came to Earth and gave us the secrets of their technology, including the secrets of manufacturing artificially intelligent robots. The Olm left a while later and a golden age came to the empire of man and robot that they left behind, until men decided that it would be better for them to destroy their enemies with robotic help. Thousands of years later the golden age is long over. Robots have come to dominate the planet, and many of them are living as if they were humans, engaging in trading, soldiering, government and other typically non-robotic concerns. Men are hunted by the remnants of the robotic hunting corps, which is commanded by Kaantur-Set, a psychotic cyborg bent on the death of just about everything. Into this world a man named Caps awoke one day with severe amnesia. Befriended by a smart monkey named Rend and a smart ape named Joumnes, both of whom could talk, Caps and his companions fell into the gun sights of Kaantur and his pack of hunters. Fleeing from the hunters, Joumnes learned that Kaantur had stolen a gem of his; a gift from the Olm that allowed mankind to give intelligence to the animals eons ago. Thereafter half-fleeing, half-pursuing the hunters the party added a few adventurers to its numbers, only to be captured and taken to Kaantur's lair, where an amazing realization about Caps' beginnings unfolded before them slowly as Caps' memories came back to him.

As an adventure book Robota is a success. It probably took a modicum of inspiration from Tolkien, but with a wide variety of uplifted and otherwise modified animals, many of which were depicted superbly in the book's amazing illustrations. With all the accoutrements and architecture of a highly advanced technology, also easily visualized, the book had a definite SF feeling to it. But the mythological feeling ran strong too. Not only was the story told from the perspective of a person far in the future looking backwards to the time of the narrative, but ruins, giant statues, monsters, armies, quests and even a well conceived traitor were what this story was made of. Card's typical terse descriptions took away a bit from the Tolkienesque feeling, but not too badly. His sarcastic and fatalistic voice was also there.

There are versions of the legend in which this noble party entered Transept City accompanied by a great windstorm that filled the city with sand and dust, or an earthquake that opened a gate for them, or a flood that made rivers of the streets. In reality they entered the city like awestruck tourists. The gates were not barred or even supervised. Nor had anyone accosted them as they approached, passing great stone shapes that seemed to be a mockery of the mushroom city, except that some of them still hung in the air, suspended by the gravity balancers of some ancient sculptor. They also passed the fallen heads of statues once build in memory of robots - though Juomnes insisted that the robots had been gargoyles. "There's no point building statues of machines. They all look alike."

Unfortunately, even though everything needed to make this a good story is there, there were some failures, mostly centered on Kaantur's character. First, it was just too evil to be believable. This thing’s plot to do in the good guys was straight out of Edmund Hamilton. The character itself was drawn well enough, in both senses of the word here, but its motivations were completely unbelievable, both in the scope of the destruction it desired and the length of time it held on to the hate that drove it. But those were not the only problems. Without spoiling the story, the only thing that was missing here was a damsel tied to the railroad tracks. Kaantur kept its enemies alive way too long, revealed its plan to the good guys when still incomplete and able to be stopped, and revealed a critical weakness to the heroes during the final battle. And to add to the cliché, Kaantur had an off-switch, as did most of the robots. That pretty much made them unworthy enemies from the start.

I am a bit more torn by this book than others where I have found such glaring problems, and I think it is because this book is so beautifully illustrated. For the price of this thing, and it is a bit rich, you could do better with your money.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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