Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Review - Alpha by Catherine Asaro

Short review: Charon is gone, but Alpha remains. But is Alpha sentient or merely a machine? And will General Wharington fall in love with her, or be killed by her, or both?

Charon is no more
Alpha still follows orders
Wharington loves her

Full review: Alpha is a sequel to Sunrise Alley (read review) that follows directly after the events of the first book. The primary characters are Alpha, an autonomous forma (as humaniform androids are called in Asaro's fictional future) created by Charon to act as his primary lieutenant, super soldier, and sex toy and General Thomas Wharington, an Air Force General who is part of the military command tasked with dealing with issues related to Artificial and Emerging Intelligences. Both Alpha and Wharington appeared in Sunrise Alley as secondary characters, but in Alpha they are promoted to the focal point of the story, with Alpha becoming the title character. As with Sunrise Alley, the story features high-intensity action and a romance that highlights questions concerning the personhood of one of the participants. Whereas Sunrise Alley asked how much of a man could be replaced and have him still be considered human, Alpha takes the next step and poses the question of whether a wholly artificially created individual can be considered human, or is merely a machine.

In Alpha, Alpha, the presumed to be masterless forma, is being held by the Air Force, which is trying to figure out what to do with her. The decision is complicated by the fact that Alpha has seemingly imprinted upon the handsome Wharington (who she says reminds her of Charon), and she will only work with him. Meanwhile, the senior members of the Air Force want to dismantle Alpha, a prospect that horrifies Wharington and raises the central question of the novel: is Alpha a person, or is she property? Alpha is more or less a male fantasy. Beautiful, deadly, and hypercompetent she was designed by Charon to act as his most trusted aide and to service him sexually. Wharington, for his part is a handsome and manly seventy year old Air Force pilot still full of idealism and patriotism with a healthy sense of honor and duty. He is a widower with a strained relationship with his adult children and a genius granddaughter that he dotes upon. He also has heart trouble, underwent rejuvenation therapy to reduce the impacts of aging, and is a surrogate father to Sam Bryton, the female protagonist of Sunrise Alley.

With Charon presumed dead following the events of Sunrise Alley, Alpha is taken into custody by the Air Force, which regards her as a valuable source of intelligence about Charon's operations and plans. Alpha, for her part, insists on working solely with Wharrington, but refuses to provide any information, asserting that she is bound by her programming to act in accord with Charon's wishes, but hinting that Wharington might replace Charon as her master. Wharington, for his part, urges Alpha to think for herself and make the leap from being an AI to being a free willed EI capable of transcending her programming and making decisions unfettered by the desires of her creator. Alpha's intransigence, however, is frustrating to Wharington's superiors who push to have her dismantled and her neural net examined directly for intelligence - which would both destroy Alpha (obviously) and result in far less intelligence gained concerning Charon's plans, but would have the advantage of providing at least some information immediately.

This is all more or less just background, including Wharington's interactions with his granddaughter who proves to be remarkably precocious and a cameo appearance by Sam Bryton in which she talks about AI psychology and how brilliant Wharington's granddaughter is (a subplot that doesn't really go anywhere). The story really gets going when Alpha escapes from custody and attempts to kidnap Wharington and his granddaughter, leading Wharington to make a rather futile attempt to resist her resulting in a broken leg and a heart attack. The heart troubles and the broken leg serve to hamper Wharington for the rest of the book, which I suppose was necessary to explain how a seventy year old man could be kidnapped by an engineered super soldier when Alpha shows up for a second time and forces him into a privately owned incredibly technologically advanced warplane and flies him off towards Africa.

Circumstances force the pair to land on a tiny uninhabited island in the Atlantic that happens to have a conveniently placed abandoned bungalow for the two to shack up in. Once there, a sort of odd romance begins to bud between the forma and the General as Wharington attempts to persuade Alpha to overcome her programming and develop desires of her own and Alpha continues to lust after Wharington because of his vague resemblance to Charon. The nascent romance focuses the book on the central question of Alpha's humanity as Wharington wrestles with his attraction to Alpha and questions whether one can have actual feelings towards what is quite possibly nothing more than a very finely crafted machine, and whether Alpha herself could actually have feelings for him. Though the romance is packed with philosophical questions, it is the weakest element of the book, since Wharington's desire for Alpha seems to be founded on little more than the fact that she is incredibly sexy and he lusts after her. Wharington's background - his patriotism, his duty, his honorability, his love for his family, and so on - provides numerous obstacles in the path of his realization of his feelings for Alpha, but there is little that explains his attraction to her other than the fact that she is beautiful and can kick his ass without breaking a sweat.

Eventually Alpha and Wharington consummate their relationship with a little bit of late night android-human sex. In an unrelated turn of events, Wharington suffers another heart attack and while he is being nursed back to health by Alpha the supposedly dead Charon shows up to reclaim Alpha's loyalties. At this point the story gets somewhat implausibly silly as Charon emulates a James Bond type villain by trying to kill Wharington in "sporting" ways that, of course, allow Wharington to survive and work against Charon. Given that Charon is supposed to be a ruthless mastermind capable of building a globe spanning empire of wealth and power that is a threat to the entire world order, this sort of cackling villain who sets death traps for his enemies instead of just shooting them in the head seems out of place. This sort of behavior seems to transform Charon from a criminal genius to an insane lunatic who just got lucky. I suppose that this could be explained by the fact that Charon has been copied so many times that the current version is just a degraded imitation of the original, but that isn't mentioned in the book, and no one, including Alpha, seems to think that Charon's behavior is out of character.

After Charon is defeated, Wharington freed, and Alpha turns sentient, Alpha offers Wharington the choice to be her remanufactured immortal lover in blissful exile or return her to Air Force custody. Given that Wharington is described throughout the book as being an intensely honorable and patriotic soldier, there isn't any real doubt as to which choice he will make, but he does go through some obligatory agonizing first. Though the story in the book is interesting, as one might gather from these elements, it is not particularly surprising. The hero defies death and escapes. The villain is defeated. The potentially sentient AI actually does become sentient and free-willed. The honorable soldier acts honorably. And so on. (I wonder how many science fiction stories that feature the potential of evolving machine intelligence making the leap to free-willed sentience have story lines in which the machine does not become sentient. I don't recall any.) Once back in the comfortable arms of the Air Force, Wharington urges Alpha to seek the aid of Sunrise Alley, which she proves reluctant to do. This leads to an appearance by a Sunrise Alley representative in which all is revealed, a last gasp by Charon's organization, and a relatively tidy ending in which everyone lives happily ever after.

Alpha is a good "machine becomes sentient" story interlaced with a good action adventure story and a fairly dull romance story. While the questions related to the legal status of machine intelligence are well done, and the story is thematically the logical next step in the path begun in Sunrise Alley, both Alpha and Wharington are so bland as characters that their romance is not all that interesting. Further hampering the novel is the cartoon-like nature of Charon as the primary villain and the somewhat predictable nature of the plot. Despite these flaws, the fundamental question of the story concerning who is entitled to be treated a person as opposed to property is presented in a strong enough manner that the book as a whole remains quite good.

Previous book in the series: Sunrise Alley

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