***Guest post by Nathan Wall.***
Androids vs Robots. Exploration vs Military conquest. Is that all? No.
N4TUR3 vs Nuture? Huh…
What better way to examine the human species than through the maturing, developing and ever-naive and easily persuaded eyes, or lenses, of a child robot?
I’m not sure if Sawh intended this or not, and that doesn’t matter given that once a story is out there its interpretation is no longer determined by the author, but in writing what I believe to be an instant Sci-Fi classic, he’s really asking the question—can nature overcome nurture?
You sly dog, you.
GR3T3L-1 follows the journey of two stranded Robots (GR3T3L-1 and H4NS3L-671) on an unforgiving planet. In case your eyes can’t replace numbers with letters, this is an interpretation of the Grimm tale Hansel and Gretel. Alone, with no mission protocols or memory of the moments leading up to their arrival on the planet, our two protagonists (?) venture to find their way through epic storms, treacherous terrain, and a threat in the shadows. As if this weren’t enough, it’s not exactly like either robot can find a wall to plug into and recharge.
Luckily, their battery life is better than my phone’s (probably because they didn’t download the Facebook app) and this doesn’t become an immediate problem.
Hansel and Gretel. That’s certainly an interesting story to pick as inspiration for a SF journey.
So, before cracking my book kindle open to read the story, I had a good idea of what the story would consist of. Sawh likened the book to the movies “Ex Machina” and “The Martian.” After having done my preview review and more because it was easy to get into, I can say he hit the nail on the head. How? Well, let’s analyze further and see if nature does indeed trump nurture.
Since this review will be part of a series of reviews, let me establish the criteria for these reviews. First, each review will only cover the first quarter or 25k words of a novel, whichever comes first. These are preview reviews, after all. GR3T3L-1 was only 92 pages long, so for the purposes of this exercise, I went a bit further than 25% because I was in the middle of a section.
Second, the criteria: plot, character, action, editing and cover. These are all things that should be well underway or engaging in areas to a high degree before an author reaches the quarter mark of their book. If they’ve not succeeded by then, the average reader will not continue. Yes, characters should evolve in a story, some parts will have more action, and the plot won’t always be obvious, but little bits of each, and a lot of one, should really be driving your story early on.
So, how did GR3T3L-1 stack up?
OK, so I have to admit, other than the clever names and a beacon launching ‘breadcrumb protocol’, I didn’t really see what this book had to do with the Grim Fairy Tale, even if it was just inspiration for a launching pad. In a story that is truly engaging, well thought out, smart and clever (this isn’t praise I throw around often or lightly), the whole ‘bread crumb’ and name thing kept drawing me out.
Eventually I got past the names, able to see beyond the numbers-are-letters thing and started calling them Gretel and Hansel. Simple enough. But when that bread crumb thing was mentioned, and more frequently as the story progressed, it just seemed so out of place with the world Sawh created. It didn’t hold its weight compared to the rest of the story. Honestly, it shouldn’t be THAT big of a deal for me. So why is it?
Well, when a book or story takes the leap to draw comparisons to legends or another fable, it needs to make some sort of contextual sense rather than just some sort of Easter egg fan service. It needs to develop the previous ideas in a plausible way that fits with the world around it, expand, and then make it original. GR3T3L-1 completed half of that. Instead of dropping bread crumbs to find their way, our protags launched a beacon into space. However, the book failed to really bring it back home as to why the hell it’s called ‘breadcrumb protocol’. I just didn’t fit what was given to me in the 25% I’m allowed to comment on in this review.
Seriously, I’ve already made a bigger deal of this than it needs to be given how awesome a read the book was.
The set up hooks you. This is a coming of age story in which two robots must juxtapose past experience with their developing situation and truly come together to defeat a dangerous threat while racing against time.
Have whiplash? Well, you won’t in this story. The pacing is superb. You’re given just enough as you need it. There’s really not a lot to nitpick at. There’s not really a cat and mouse game going on, or a puzzle to solve. At its core, GR3T3L-1 is a character driven story. All it needed was an enticing base to set up shop, and it has that in spades.
Our two robots couldn’t be more different. GR3T3L is the ever learning, ever evolving, teetering on the brink of being sky-net level AI, and H4NS3L is the brutish military drone designed to be rigid and deadly. What could go wrong?
GR3T3L is certainly the MC of the show. She’s on the cover, after all. However, she fits the bill for a protagonist. GR3T3L is determined and clever, yet she has flaws and an attitude, something she strives to overcome to be better. She’s not beyond calling for help and leaning on her partner, even conceding to him on numerous occasions despite her blatant opinions as to his mental capabilities.
You may be wondering why I’m referring to these robots by genders?
Well, in GR3T3L’s case, it’s quite simple. She was created by a Dr. Li and even notes herself that her features were modelled very closely on the doctor’s. Furthermore, in several instances, her voice even reflects the sound, pitch and tone of Li’s.
H4NS3L makes a clever observation about GR3T3L in that he’d never seen a drone with the makeup of a human before (in this case obviously female). It wasn’t logical, and on more than one occasion this design flaw would become a hindrance to their journey were it not for H4NS3L’s ability to pull her from the fire because of his design.
The other reason is the source of each robot’s core values, or videos….
In the robots’ version of dreams and memories, each robot scrolls through past videos and protocols to help guide their choices when facing problems. The most influential videos in GR3T3L’s database are her interactions with Dr. Li. On the other hand, H4NS3L religiously calls back to videos with a General Brandt, a military minded war hero with a penchant for being hard-nosed (yet quietly emotional) and drinking. Just about every decision both robots make early on is dictated by applying past lessons to their current situations.
This is where the story gets interesting. Even though GR3T3L is set up to get the lion’s share of the POV time, credit for outwitting H4NS3L, and guiding the mission, it’s the military drone’s ability to make strategic decisions, classifications and inferences that actually saves them and gets them to where they need to go. You could argue that since GR3T3L was designed to be analytical and almost human-like, that H4NS3L’s ability to evolve and move the plot along is far greater given what he has to overcome from a software standpoint. You could even argue that he’s actually far more tactful and clever than GR3T3L, allowing her to think whatever she wants of him and believe she’s guiding his hand. It’s interesting stuff, so let me argue the points.
You could say H4NS3L is just a product of rigorous design specifications by the military. There are so many codes and protocols in his system that it’s only a matter of time before you pick the right lock and find something that gets him to move where you want.
This seems to be the case early on when he initially refuses to accept GR3T3L’s suggestion and mission plan. She argues to him that failure isn’t an option for a combat drone, and that in the absence of any current mission protocol, her action was the most logical. He relents and they go on their way.
But does he?
If you forward on in the story, you’ll find a H4NS3L POV section in which he gives into her logic of the situation ‘for the time being.’ He even gives her the moniker ‘mission specialist’ in order to get around his own subroutines. Check out this snippet:
H4NS3L complied, moving its massive frame in formation behind GR3T3L’s slender form. This seemed to be the correct course of action, although its database offered little precedent for a combat unit to take orders from non-military personnel, much less an artificial construct at that. Its data banks were too fragmented for H4NS3L to make a firm decision, so instead, it yielded to the logic of the situation. It was after all, a drone, and a drone without a commander was useless. The GR3T3L unit appeared to have a greater grasp of the situation, so for the time being, H4NS3L gave it ‘mission specialist’ designation.
The snippet concedes his data banks are too fragmented, but does that seem like the logic and understanding of a rigid military drone? The fact H4NS3L could make the determination to give GR3T3L specialist’ designation to get around ‘fragmented’ rules is intriguing and something he did, not her. If H4NS3L didn’t display the ability to adapt to the situation or and grow, no amount of convincing from GR3T3L would’ve changed his mind.
There’s further evidence later on after a storm when he gives them the designation of a team. GR3T3L is actually shocked by it, but H4NS3L plays it off based on ‘logic of the situation’ because they’re together, working to a common goal. But even this baffles GR3T3L.
As well, time and again H4NS3L proves to be far from useless, scaring off some creature referred to as “The Other”, dragging GR3T3L out of a storm and even helping rid her systems of debris so she can heal. There’s a lot of stuff he does on his own, which leads me to believe things aren’t as they seem.
The two robots are the perfect counterbalance to each other. They have a common threat, and will need to evolve past their current protocols to defeat it and survive.
As well, there’s the lurking possibility that maybe they’re actually being pitted against one another. That’s a theory I have at about the 27% mark. On one hand you have a droid whose creation was prohibited, is growing in intelligence, understanding of the situation and ability to think for itself, and is guided by past videos with Doctor Li.
On the other you’ve got a military drone, built to destroy, hardwired to survive and follow commands, who has seemingly spent a lot of one-on-one time with General Brandt.
Both Robots just happen to be stranded on a remote and dangerous planet without any mission protocol or memory of events leading to their arrival? This is a test. It’s either a game to see if the two droids can coexist and work out a mission together without human intervention, possibly to explore planets and solar systems not on the human wish list (such as the planet they’re currently on), or it’s going to be a death battle in which only one robot is allowed to survive the mission and come home. That winner will then represent the ideological victory between Dr. Li and General Brandt.
Of course, that’s just my theory. I could be way off. Either way, something is going to happen and the robots are going to have to evolve past their upbringing and subroutines.
There’s not a ton of action in this book. There’s plenty to propel the story along. A lot of it is conversations, or interactions and monologues with their human advisors. The action of the storm, H4NS3L’s rescuing of GR3T3L, and the subsequent aftermath is well done. It’s frenetic and descriptive. You get a sense of what a wind storm would be like on a place like Mars.
There’s also a video memory in which H4NS3L experiences the feed from another military drone as it guns down a military person trying to aid some rebel children. It then recites some cool military code and blast’s the soldier’s head open, along with the children. Good stuff.
I didn’t see a whole of issues. There are some, but mostly in the form of missing words. The formatting is consistent. As it is, there aren’t any official chapter or episode breaks. It reads as one long, 92 page short story with just the intermittent *** designating scene or POV breaks.
It wasn’t a big deal at first, since the book is such an engaging read. You just flow right into it and before long, you’ve finished a large chunk. That said, unless you have a placeholder of some sort, it’s a struggle to get back and find your spot. You can’t just remember whatever chapter you’re on. You have to remember the page number. That’s not a big deal with ebooks, but the story is 92 pages long. I doubt even the most voracious reader has time in their schedule to chew all that up at once.
The robot on the cover has a nice, complex design. It looks authentic. The background certainly fits the mental image I have when reading about the landscape, although it makes for a less than exhilarating ensemble with the bronzish tone of GR3TEL.
I think it’s pretty safe to say where I fall on this one. Had I not already finished the book (it was that good, I gobbled it up), I would be giving it an recommendation of “to finish.”
I want to take a second to pinpoint an aspect of this book that I really liked, but wasn’t able to touch on in my category rundown. This book is labeled Science Fiction, as it should be. It’s about robots, AI, military drones and foreign worlds. However, I wouldn’t classify it as unapproachable Science Fiction.
That’s not a slight to say it’s not “hard SF” or “true SF.” A lot of Sci-Fi writers get caught up with those terms and turn their noses up authors who don’t fit that mold. Certainly my “Evolution of Angels” series isn’t hard SF. It’s not meant to be.
Yet, GR3T3L-1 straddles that line a bit, and does so to perfection.
You’re immersed into the world of these two robots. Terms and theories are thrown out quite often, yet they’re conveyed and explained in a way that doesn’t slow you down or make you feel stupid. Sawh displayed a knack for quietly spoon feeding you heaping amounts of information without you realizing it. Even if you’re the type of viewer or reader who has a hard time with Star Trek jargon, you’ll be at home with this story.
Highly recommended, and well done.
Thank you V.M. Sawh for sharing your book with me.