Sunrise Alley, by Catherine Asaro

>> Thursday, July 12, 2007

TITLE: Sunrise Alley
AUTHOR: Catherine Asaro

PAGES: 448

SETTING: Near future (2030s, IIRC)
TYPE: Sci-fi romance
SERIES: There are some vague links to The Veiled Web and The Phoenix Code, but no need to read those to understand SA (I mean, you should read them, but simply because they're so good *g*). SA is followed by Alpha.

REASON FOR READING: Sci-fi romance is very rare, and it's a genre I love. Asaro does it well.

When the shipwrecked stranger washed up, nearly drowned, on the beach near research scientist Samantha Bryton's home, she was unaware that he was something more than human: an experiment conducted by Charon, a notorious criminal and practitioner of illegal robotics and android research. The man said his name was Turner Pascal-but Pascal was dead, killed in a car wreck. Charon is experimenting with copying the minds of humans into android brains, implanted in human bodies to escape detection, and plans to make his own army of slaves that will follow his orders without question.

Samatha and Turner quickly find themselves on the run across the country, pursued by the most ruthless criminal of the twenty-first century. In desperation, Samatha decides to seek help from Sunrise Alley, an underground organization of AIs and androids that had gone rogue. But these cybernetic outlaws are rumored to have their own hidden agenda, not necessarily congruent with humanity's welfare, and Samatha prays that her only hope will not prove a forlorn one...
THE PLOT: Due to some ethical disagreements with her employers, leading biotech engineer Samantha Bryton has retired and is living in her isolated sea-side home. But her calm is shattered when she finds an unconscious man washed up in the nearby beach, a man who wakes up and claims he's a victim of an experiment conducted by a dangerous criminal, Charon.

He claims he's Turner Pascal, a bellboy who died in an accident. According to him, Charon stole his recently dead body, imaged his brain, and downloaded it into a miraculously advanced android body, his current one. He claims he's still a man, even though his body is all mechanic, and he fears Charon will come after him. Sam is his only hope.

As they try to escape the villains after them and take refuge within the legendary Sunrise Alley, a comunity of rebel artificial intelligences, Sam will have to decide where the line between android and human lies.

MY THOUGHTS: What I most like about Asaro's books is that she makes me think, and about issues that are not the kind of thing I usually consider. The main theme in SA is what exactly makes us human. Can you still be human even if the essence of your brain has been downloaded into an artificial construct? Is the answer "yes" as long as you feel like you're the person you were before changing bodies? And what if being in the new body has made your intelligence and capabilities evolve far beyond what they were before?

Asaro explores these issues in a way that's not hard to grasp (even for us non-technical types) and that still goes into very satisfying depths. I don't know if life in 30 years will ressemble Asaro's projections, but I'm certain we will have to handle issues at least similar to this, and probably before too long.

But this is not merely an excellent exploration of the line between human and artificial intelligence, but also a pretty good story (and with a nice romance in it, too!). Turner is a great character, with doubts and insecurities in spite of his enhanced intelligence that only make him more human, and Sam is the perfect person to understand his unique issues. She sometimes crosses the line into too much perfection, but it wasn't too bad. The romance that develops between them is heartwarming and actually feels like real love, in spite of the short time they've known each other and the abnormal circumstances in which all their interactions have taken place.

Speaking of those abnormal circumstances, that was something that didn't work as well for me. The story proceeds at a quick pace, maybe too quick for me. Turner and Sam spend most of the book in grave danger, either captured by a variety of villains or on the run from them. There are hardly any quiet moments here. It's a wonder Asaro was able to delve into Turner's humanity in as much detail as she was. I still wanted more of that and less of escapes and running, which got a bit tiresome after a while

I also wasn't crazy about the links between Sam and Charon, which didn't completely ring true. Especially the details revealed near the end connecting it all with her father's death. That really made me go "Hmmm".

On the whole, though, this was minor, compared to what's good about the book.



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