Thursday, November 29, 2007

By Barrington J. Bayley

Barrington Bayley is perhaps the truest science fiction writer I have ever come across. His stories are filled with all the swashbuckling action and adventure SF is supposed to have while taking the ideas raised by imagined science very seriously indeed. Bayely does this by blending history, philosophy, and classic fiction with a dash of mysticism.

In The Soul of the Robot we get the story of Pinocchio with Steerpike from Gormenghast in the starring role, a spicy blend indeed. The story begins with Jasperodus, a highly developed artificial intelligence coming into being. He departs his creator with nary a backward glance in search of adventure and himself in the wide world. Jasperodus is vexed by the question of consciousness, is he a sentient being or simply a clever imitation? But first he gets in the middle of a Wild West train robbery. His reactions to the violence he encounters leave one wondering, is Jasperodus fatally flawed by a lack of empathy or is he simply to young to understand the consequences of actions.

Jasperodus isn’t exactly a naif, after a period of slavery he rises to become a general and eventually a king through a series of Machiavellian intrigues. Is Jasperodus a true anti-hero or just a kid who wants his way, NOW. Bayley’s plot is a sardonic commentary on the nature of power, aimed less at those who wield it, than those who follow it.

Jasperodus’ tale takes surprising twists as the robot follows his quest, ever seeking to understand the nature of consciousness. Japserodus also follows some other, lesser quests to whip the bejeezus out of various personal foes. Bayley doesn’t mind stopping the action to have a debate on ontological metaphysics, usually framed by a duel to the death with a hostile space cruiser or a revolution. Bayley drops in deadpan humor as well, describing just how a robot deals with a comrade on a psychedelic trip, and why it’s unwise to make an enemy of an automated plumbing system.

The Soul of the Robot is taut, engaging SF that manages to thrill the senses while exercising the mind.
-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

I have yet to read Bayley, though he's moved up on my list due to your recommendations. Just so much good stuff to read that I'm having a hard time. I'm reading two great books now.

Dave Hardy said...

Bayley wrote realtively few books, so reading them all is doable. I've loved every single one. There are other critics who are lot less enthusiastic.

His work tends to be short. It's old-style DAW yellow-backs that run to 180 pages or so. He crams an impossible level of thought and excitement in his novels.