It takes courage-and perhaps audacity-to come out swinging, and I’d say JF Dubeau‘s debut novel, The Life Engineered, throws a few powerful punches that make his a book worth giving your undivided attention. In many ways, The Life Engineered is archetypical, but in other ways, it represents a novel approach to a classic medium: robot-focused science fiction.
The Life Engineered, one of the Inkshares / Sword and Laser contest winners, is available today, at the end of a long and interesting road. Because of its publication through Inkshares, readers have had unprecedented access to information about the writing and publication process, and knowing Dubeau’s state of mind put some additional weight behind moments in the novel. But, as I’m learning in a wonderful book called Reading Like a Writer, it is important to look at the words themselves, rather than the extraneous meta-data of the circumstances surrounding their origin. So I will endeavor to do just that.
The Life Engineered is several things: it is a love-song to space, a bold claim about artificial intelligence, and a classic hero’s journey. And while its plot was a bit predictable, the characters and setting drew me in so effectively that I ignored (or forgot) the predictability in favor of some “wow” moments.
And though it bludgeons the reader with references to old mythologies and historical factoids throughout the novel, there’s an obvious and clearly-stated reason for it that ties directly into the mechanism through which the robots—called Capeks in the novel, after the Czech man who coined the term “robot”—are given life and sentience.
There are three things in particular that made me love this book:
The first, as I referenced earlier, is that it is a love-song to space. I am a big fan of space, and I found Dubeau’s solutions to faster-than-light space travel, his descriptions of he phenomena taking place in deep space, and his approach to telling a focused story with a small cast in an (ostensibly) endless space to be wonderfully executed. The shifting and warping of space as the sentient ships travel, the beauty of the vastness of space as seen through the eyes of Dagir, the protagonist; it was stunning to read. I would have liked more time with those moments, deeper dives into the extraordinary setting that is at once fantastical and very real. Dubeau clearly put a lot of thought into how to make his far-future Galaxy a scientifically plausible, and I’d have really liked for him to dig into harder sci-fi, if at least to make the book a bit meatier.
The second is the cast of characters, who cannot be talked about without addressing the manner of their “birth.” A literal process of samsara precedes every Capek life. The robots’ consciousness, before having a body of its own, lives as many lives as is required for it to ascend to nirvana. Once it achieves its enlightenment, it takes an active role in constructing its own body with its “mother”, a conscious factory that spans the surface of a moon.
I mean…come on. That’s pretty great, right? I think it is.
As a result, the Capeks that make up the cast of The Life Engineered are varied and fascinating. I thought about what experiences each of Dagir’s friends (and enemies) must have had in their gestation that lead them to their choice of physical form, their declared purposes. They fell into natural classifications, but each is a wholly unique being. I want to know everything about all of them. Granted, that wasn’t possible in the scope of the story Dubeau told in The Life Engineered, but I posit below that it might have been possible. You’ll see what I mean.
The third is more abstract, and departs from the Reading Like a Writer edict to ignore the world around this book. I love what this book stands for; what it represents. This thing that we’re all engaged in, this dream of telling stories and having them reach a few sets of eyes in the world—that’s what The Life Engineered is. And it’s a good book! The other books I read for Inkshares didn’t feel this way for me. I didn’t watch as they were produced. I didn’t talk to the writers, or meet them in person. Like it or not, Reading-Like-a-Writer‘s-author, books occupy a space beyond their word counts and any between-the-lines analysis. To me, this book (and likely the next few I read by authors I consider my friends), will be monumental experiences that transcend words on paper, that supersede even the stories in their pages. But enough about that.
My final thought about The Life Engineered is that, though it is a complete start-to-finish story, it feels more like the first act in a larger novel. It may be because I’m used to reading thousand-page epics, but I felt like The Life Engineered was the inciting event. And obviously, it is—Dubeau intends to make a series of it, and has the entire thing outlined, if I’m not mistaken. The type of cliffhanger that closes The Life Engineered is not uncommon, but something about its execution left me feeling unsatisfied. I wanted more, I suppose, and I wanted it right away.
Do yourself, a new writer, and great company a favor. Go buy The Life Engineered (World Engineered) today.