BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A newborn robot wakes up to a galaxy in existential-turned-physical turmoil.
PROS: A tightly bundled plot with few wasted words serving some admirable worldbuilding.
CONS: Wraps up too quick to solve the central tease (what forced humans into hiding?) or explore the deeper implied issues inherent to artificial intelligence.
BOTTOM LINE: A wartime whodunnit investigated by robots who are more like humans than they think.
The first thing learned in The Life Engineered, via an unnecessary prologue, is that the human race is going away. The last thing learned in The Life Engineered is that the human race is going away. What happens in between, the engineered lives in question, is more interesting than what the humans may have done or will do. We’re taken on a-literal at times-rocket ride across the Milky Way to solve a murder mystery among a loosely structured society of sentient robots slowly making the galaxy habitable for humanity again.
Why does the galaxy need to be rebuilt for us? Teases about that are offered as bookends, but there are two other bookends involving a matrix-like simulation of human life on Earth that serve the story much better. The simulated Earth adds emotional weight that may have been absent if Dubeau rushed headlong into the future inhabited solely by Capeks: Sentient robots mostly built by other robots. Though the humans are long gone, their shadows persist in nearly every action or piece of dialogue. Future tech is front and center, but the reader doesn’t become lost as our protagonist is a noob too and the author sprinkles ample context to clarify. A glossary of terms, characters, and technology is provided but probably not needed for avid readers of modern science fiction.
An unfortunate side-effect of the ride-along plot device is that we learn very little about how Capeks think or operate as a society. In that sense, the allure of a story from a robot’s point of view is a bit of a marketing fib by the author. We’re seeing through the eyes of a robot that would rather be human and makes a point of stating it constantly, even asking other Capeks to address her with a female pronoun, wishing she could sigh or cry, etc. The reliance on human perspective spoils a plot that had the potential to evolve into more than a murder mystery filled with robot space battles and a recurring theme of mercy given even to those who don’t understand it. Dubeau’s intent must have been to create a book more accessible for a general public used to finding a human character, or at least human emotions, to identify with. I suspect this is a clever device to hook readers on the concept before deconstructing the psychology of Capeks in forthcoming sequels.
Despite-or perhaps because of-the author’s reluctance to devote much space to exploring the issues of self, morality, etc. the book carries on at a frenetic pace that never dulls. The writing is crisp and clean, giving us a very accurate idea of what the characters and situations look like. Which perhaps falls in line with how an artificial intelligence really would observe their world, with a focus on data rather than emotion. However, the Capek serving as our eyes to the world, struggles with the vestiges of human emotions, sometimes to her detriment, enabling a few crucial plot twists to keep the reader invested in her well-being. It’s a tribute to Dubeau that by the end of the book we do care what happens to any of these robots, albeit because they unknowingly borrow so much of themselves from us.
If you’re hoping for an answer to why there aren’t any humans participating directly in the action you will be disappointed. Instead, read The Life Engineered for a quick tour of Dubeau’s pseudo-plastic laced worldbuilding that sows the seeds for future works sure to deliver a fascinating look at what separates man and machine.
Andrew Long is an avid creator and consumer of science fiction and fantasy. Before paying the bills with a marketing day job he attended art school and subsequently exhibited and sold his paintings at Hive Gallery in Los Angeles, California. He writes science fiction short stories and novels under the pseudonym A.L. Lorentz.