REVIEW SUMMARY: It’s important to be able to relate to the main character in a character-driven novel.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Military android goes AWOL and tries to live a normal life among the enemy.
PROS: Well-written action scenes; avoids “robot wants to be human” cliché.
CONS: Little reason to care about main character; poor pacing; somewhat mired down in politics.
BOTTOM LINE: Shows signs of being a first novel.
In reading Joel Shepherd’s first novel, Crossover, I am struck by the importance of a reader caring about the main character. That character doesn’t necessarily have to be a hero or even likable as a person, but they do have to be interesting and have something about them to which the reader can relate. This was my biggest gripe with Crossover.
The story follows Cassandra (Sandy) Kressnov, an advanced, biomechanical android created as a General Issue (GI) military killing machine. To make her the best of the best, she was experimentally designed to think “more laterally” than any previous models, thus giving her an edge. It also gives her a healthy dose of free will as she decides to defect in the middle of an interstellar war, from the hands of the League to the artificial-life-hating Federation – all in hopes of starting life anew on the Federation planet Callay. Unfortunately for her, this is not to be. Cassandra’s identity is discovered soon after her arrival and, by way of assassination attempt, is enlisted by the Federation to protect Callay from forces both military and political.
Despite the simple description above, the lines between League and Federation are more blurry than “us versus them”. Each side has several different factions with a range of loyalties, beliefs and motives. The story sometimes got mired in it all, but then again, I’m more of a fan of political intrigue than politics.
But this is a character-driven novel with Cassandra’s situation at the heart of the story. She’s artificial yet she tries to lead a normal, “human” life. I’ve read in interviews that the author was specifically trying to avoid the “robot wants to be human” cliché and he does that successfully. From Kressnov’s point of view, she’s as human as you or me. Cassandra is bewildered, in fact, when the judges in a courtroom ask her if she was a machine. Her plight stems from the idea that artificial humans are the subject of social discrimination. The problem with said plight is that we are never shown this. It’s as if Shepherd was trying so hard to avoid the cliché that he left out the one aspect of her predicament that would have endeared her to the audience. I’m reminded of Andrew Martin in Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man” in which the reader sees exactly how Martin is the subject of discrimination. Martin is the embodiment of the “robot wants to be human” cliché. (See also: Star Trek‘s Data, Earl and Otto Binder’s Adam Link, the boy robot from Brian Aldiss’ “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” and the Spielberg adaptation A.I.) Martin’s story is engrossing because we can relate to him. They are two separate things: the desire to be human and the effect of not being one. Where Crossover fails is that it tries to avoid one by omitting the other. We have to take the robot discrimination as a given. Even the derogatory term of “Skin” is used a small handful of times, as if its use would have been proof of falling prey to the dreaded cliché.
The result is that a potential for really liking the character is not fully realized. (Vanessa, the Federation SWAT Lieutenant who befriends Cassandra and becomes her babysitter-turned-partner, was more entertaining than Sandy.) The story, then, reads like a series a plot points to be followed as a casual observer on the outside. This inability to connect with the main character (above and beyond any other stock sideline character) led to pacing issues. The first half of the book seemed to mosey along until Cassandra was put in a position of control; too much time was spent in the halls of League/Federation politics. There were better-paced moments, of course. The occasional action scenes – an assassination attempt, bullet-riddled shoot-outs, military missions, some interesting back story on Cassandra’s former life – injected some much-needed adrenalin into the story and made it interesting again. The writing style, which was terse but easily digested, made these action scenes shine and was suited to Cassandra’s superhuman reflexes and information processing.
The worst thing that could be said about Crossover is that this is a first novel and partly suffers from being just that. But the later parts of the book picked up the slack a bit and that shows promise for the next installment in the series.