The Phoenix Code, by Catherine Asaro

>> Tuesday, August 29, 2006

I've never tried Catherine Asaro's Skolian books, which I guess she's best known for (actually, I did read one short story which I believe beongs in that universe, the story in the Irresistible Forces anthology, and I wasn't too impressed), but I love her two books that I've read that are set on Earth in the very near future and deal with Artificial Intelligence. Those are Veiled Web and the book I reread recently, The Phoenix Code (excerpt).

When robotics expert Megan O'Flannery is offered the chance to direct MindSim's cutting-edge program to develop a self-aware android, it's the opportunity of a lifetime. But the project is trouble plagued--the third prototype "killed" itself, and the RS-4 is unstable. Megan will descend into MindSim's underground research lab in the Nevada desert, where she will be the sole human in contact with the RS-4, dubbed Aris. Programmed as part of a top-secret defense project, the awakening Aris quickly proves to be deviously resourceful and basically uncontrollable. When Megan enlists the help of Raj Sundaram, the quirky, internationally renowned robotics genius, the android develops a jealous hostility toward Raj--and a fixation on Megan. But soon she comes to realize that Raj may be an even greater danger--and that her life may depend on the choice she makes between the man she wants to trust and the android she created.
An excellent combination of sci-fi and romance. A B+.

AI expert Dr. Megan O'Flannery is thrilled when MindSim, the leading company in the field, offers her the chance to head the team developing their promising new android. The job implies living in an underground lab in Nevada, alone with the android at first, and then also with the robotics expert chosen to work on the prototype.

The robotics expert is the very renowned Raj Sundaram, a man Megan had already met once, and been very intrigued by. Raj is a man considered very difficult by most people. His mind doesn't work in a particularly linear way and he doesn't do much to hide it, so his cryptic way of speaking, combined with his social ineptness confuse people, turning them hostile to him. Unlike most, though, Megan isn't bothered by this, but fascinated.

When Raj arrives in Nevada, the attraction between him and Megan quickly develops into something more. But all is not fine, because the android, Aris (who later changes his name to Ander), has become very attached to Megan, so he develops a strong resentment towards Raj. And soon Megan finds herself in a dangerous situation in which she doesn't know who to trust.

Both the romance and sci-fi elements here were wonderfully done. I was fascinated by the way Asaro dealt with the AI element. Her setting gives a very interesting vision of the near future, which, even after 6 years of the book being written, still feels valid.

TPC is also pretty rare for a genre book, in that it really delves into certain big issues and makes you thing about them. Asaro asks some very interesting questions about what being human means, and this made think about how I feel about this, and actually made me question some of my beliefs.

I really enjoyed the scenes in which Megan worked on Ander and his development. Ander is a compelling character, very believable as someone who's only learning how to be human and is having to cram years of development into weeks. I loved how Asaro showed his thought processes through his reactions, and he became a very well-rounded character for me.

The romance was lovely, even though I might have liked a bit more space devoted to it. Asaro gives us a very unique romantic triangle, one with the intriguing twist of having one of the vertices being an android. I very much enjoyed both Megan and Raj. I liked the way Megan was so honourable, so determined to do the right thing by Aris/Ander, once she became convinced that he'd developed a consciousness that made him human. And Raj I loved for his vulnerability and his genius and his social ineptitude, and for the way he interacted with Ander, always so respectful of his humanity, even when the android was hostile. The relationship between these two men was among the best things in the book. And only now that I've finished the book do I realize that we see things only from Megan's point of view, and that's because the book's so well written that I felt I knew what was in Raj's mind, and I didn't feel anything was missing.

The resolution was great, the best possible solution (and I remember the twist catching me completely by surprise the first time!), and the action, even the adventurous part, never confusing. I didn't completely understand why Megan would still trust a certain person, but other than that, TPC was great.

I think I'm now going to start Sunrise Alley, which looks to be in the same vein as this book.


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