A warm thanks to the publisher for providing me with an ARC copy of An Unnatural Life by Erin K. Wagner, in exchange for this honest review.
Possible trigger warnings: Murder, incarceration
|Series: –||Genre: Sci-Fi|
|Date of Publishing: Sep 15, 2020||Publisher: Tor|
Murderbot meets To Kill a Mockingbird in Erin K. Wagner’s An Unnatural Life, an interplanetary tale of identity and responsibility.
The cybernetic organism known as 812-3 is in prison, convicted of murdering a human worker but he claims that he did not do it. With the evidence stacked against him, his lawyer, Aiya Ritsehrer, must determine grounds for an appeal and uncover the true facts of the case.
But with artificial life-forms having only recently been awarded legal rights on Earth, the military complex on Europa is resistant to the implementation of these same rights on the Jovian moon.
Aiya must battle against her own prejudices and that of her new paymasters, to secure a fair trial for her charge, while navigating her own interpersonal drama, before it’s too late.
“And if we plan to imprison robotnici, then we must be prepared to follow the law in every other point as well.”
A plangent and dismal story that resonates in the now, Erin K. Wagner’s latest novella, An Unnatural Life, takes us to the coming probabilities of robot civil rights through an exploration of sentience, free will, and humanity. But more importantly, science fiction novella extrapolates on how we humans react and shun new forms of identity.
This novella is marketed as To Kill a Mockingbird with a futuristic twist, but in all honesty I’ve never read the classic so whatever likeness there was I most likely missed it. I found that to be a plus since I came into this world expecting no parallels and came out very happy with what I got.
I got an authentic look into the darkest side of humanity represented by a monstrous dichotomic prison system that cages individuals using personhood as a weapon while at the same time stripping them of any existence. Our main character, Aiya, witnesses a society that brutally denies change even as it shapes it. With her as our guide, we journey through a world where life is incomprehensible and confusing, and it is that unknown that rises our inherent anger, destructive, and hateful tendencies as a species.
A major snag for me was the story’s momentum; it kept changing POVs and timelines in a matter of a couple paragraphs, a bit jarring as I attempted to grasp the impact of each scene as it unravelled. It clearly connects the past, present, and future in a very interesting narrative, but the way the flow shifts clashes with the current atmosphere of each scene a few times.
Nevertheless, it soon gets you involved and one of the best things about this novella is the discussions it brings to the table.
Though robotnici become the focus of the story, the main point of An Unnatural Life is not how robots may evolve as we blast off into space to establish galactic colonies, but the ways human society can remain trapped in political, social, and cultural stasis as these unknown consequences of our evolution clash with our understandings and beliefs.
In every interaction between Aiya and 812-3, every moment they speak, Aiya notices something about him or they touch, we get to see the questions: Even if new forms of life presented themselves to us, would we even have the ability to recognize them? The willingness? Can humanity ever put humility over comfort? What makes something not-human alive?
I’m a huge fan of stories that raise deeply complex discussions like these, answers that may have no defining answers in the end so I really enjoyed this novella. I absolutely loved how the story progressed and that ending raised a great point in the discrepancy between legal action and social context, in that sometimes law reflects a change that society itself refuses to enforce. These very clear connections to our past and present made this one a timely read packed with foresight and heart.
In an interview I did with the author, Erin mentions how she moved from academic non-fiction to fiction, and I think in many ways this novella, although fictional, reflects all the aspects I love in non-fiction. Generation of discussion, exploration above resolution, and a book that is easy to read but hard to forget.
It’ll leave you with a great deal to think about.