on Oct. 16, 2016 :
Return to Mech City by Brian Bakos gets my vote as the best free read at Smashwords. This first book of the Robot Horizon Series presents a modest book cover and a mere two-sentence description that managed to immediately snag my attention.
The story is a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Humanity has succumbed to plague and environmental devastation. Only the robots remain.
Before the apocalypse, many types of robots had been integrated into human society, and robot engineers in Mech City developed new ones right up to the very end.
This is the place where Dr. Anna Horvath tells her blue humanite model robot Winston to go with her dying words. She has filled his data reservoir with all the knowledge of humankind and gives him the task of preserving this legacy. Her orders give Winston a reason not to jump from a window and kill himself.
In Mech City, he finds robots adrift without purpose. No humans remain to give them tasks, and many hurl themselves from upper stories. Most of the robots are worker robots. They are built for manual functions and differ from a humanite like Winston, who lacks physical strength.
Winston begins saving robots by giving them new purpose. He has them renovate buildings. Grateful for the direction he offers, they quickly start calling him "Boss" and he likes it.
Winston meets Star. She was built to look like a perfect woman and be desirous of giving and receiving sexual pleasure. I admired how Bakos made the sex slave robot fresh again. Star is a complex character, curious, kind, and inherently good.
But not all robots are awaiting orders or good in their hard drives. Fascista Ultimo, F.U. to his friends, has plotted a takeover of Mech City and plans to rule all of robot kind. Aided by robots of sinister and destructive design, he forcefully enlists Winston to his inner circle because of his influence over the worker robots. Winston complies because he does not want to be destroyed. As a scholarly robot, however, he possesses the data and programming to recognize the dangerous insanity of F.U.
For example, F.U. says, "It's all about the natural hierarchy. We Humanites were created to be the Master Race, the successors of the founding humans."
And from his Manifesto:
"The true Fascist leader must give his followers the sense that their rotten little prejudices are something exalted and pure."
This novel is both complex and easy to read. The prose flows, and the skill with which Bakos treats the development of robot characters impressed me.
The post-apocalyptic turmoil drives Winston to experience sensations increasingly close to emotions. His programming sometimes literally crashes as he copes with terrible problems and tragedies. The adoration of the worker robots immediately builds his ego, and he likes the power. But when he see the evil of F.U. he recognizes how corrupting the love of power can be.
For me, the novel created an amazing fictional study about what the world of robots might be like. We live in a time of Big Data, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Against this real-world backdrop, Bakos imagined an artificial culture in its infancy as it struggled with chaos, oppression, and revolution.
The actions of the robots, while staying genuinely within the realm of their digital souls, reminded me strongly of the beauty and ugliness within humanity.
In Return to Mech City, I joined with characters who showed that artificial intelligence finds the great problems of the ages no easier to deal with than my organic brain.
(review of free book)