During a romance novel slump, I picked up a recent Science Fiction offering from Catherine Asaro, who is highly regarded by many of my fellow TRR reviewers. Am I glad I did! Thought-provoking, entertaining and romantic, The Phoenix Code is my kind of Sci-Fi: heavy on the characters, light on the techno-wizardry. This may be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Our heroine is Megan O’Flannery, a brilliant computer scientist whose specialty is Artificial Intelligence. She is offered the chance to direct the development of a functional android at MindSim, a cutting-edge company with a Defense Department contract. Despite a few misgivings about leaving her comfortable post as professor at MIT, she takes on this new challenge and finds herself in a remote Nevada desert outpost with only a handful of robots to keep her company. Her task is to work with an android named Aris to determine the feasibility of creating a conscious being who is capable of independent thought but is willing to be guided by humans.
Soon it becomes obvious that Megan needs the assistance of a robotics expert, and the enigmatic Raj Sundaram joins her in Nevada. Megan met Raj once before and was intrigued by the reclusive but handsome genius. She thinks that working with him will be fascinating, but she is about to become entangled in a bizarre romantic triangle. Aris is a remarkably opportunistic android who can re-write his own computer code to change his behavior. He may not have true emotions, but he forms a strong attachment to Megan - and he resents her interest in Raj. How much control does Megan really have over Aris, and how far will he go to keep her for himself?
I generally shy away from science-fiction, preferring character-driven stories to ones overburdened with gadgets and technology, but The Phoenix Code is the very essence of character - in fact, its protagonists struggle with the issue of what makes a being human. Aris (who later renames himself Ander) has skin and DNA, but his blood is a lubricant and his brain is a sophisticated computer. He is on the cusp of becoming a self-aware being, but if that happens, his superior strength could enable him to overpower his human creators. So is he real? Does he deserve the same consideration as a person? And in a near-future world of 2021, in which humans contain more and more robotic parts such as artificial hearts and joints, where is the defining line between human and android?
These thought-provoking questions are posed within a very human storyline - girl meets boy, boy wants girl, robot wants girl too. Raj is a charming hero - geeky but endearing, a genius who had to endure childhood tormenters because of his differences but who retains the capacity to love. When he tells Megan that her eyes are “the same color blue as the alternate function key” on his calculator, I almost swooned. What a guy. Of course, it helped that he looks pretty darn good in a black leather jacket.
Boyish, intelligent, but frequently unstable, Aris is the most intriguing character in the book. When Megan re-adjusts his settings, increasing his freedom, he becomes a trouble-making “rapscallion robot” whose actions place Megan and Raj in mortal danger. But you can’t help liking him and rooting for him to find a happy ending - whatever that might be for an android. You know that Megan should wind up with Raj, but some of the funniest parts of the book are the verbal duels between the two males:
“I don’t put people at ease.” Raj cleared his throat. “ Especially people that, uh, I want to - well, to know better.”
The middle of the book sags with too many repetitive chase scenes and faceless bad guys. But a shocking, jaw-dropping plot twist towards the novel’s end will linger in your thoughts long after you finish the last page.
Megan felt as if she were melting. “You do just fine.”
“Oh please,” Ander said, “If this gets any more sentimental, I’m going to puke.”
“That would be a feat,” Raj said, “Considering that your plumbing isn’t set up for that response.”
It would be easy to hate Catherine Asaro. According to her bio, she has a Ph.D. in Chemical Physics from Harvard, she teaches classical ballet, and she writes dynamite novels too. Plus she’s cute and she’s a wife and mother. Why do some women have it all? Well, if I can’t hate her, I’ll have to read her work instead.