Roboteer | Alex Lamb | 2015 (Pb 2016) | Gollancz | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book
The future has arrived and with it mankind has split itself in two. A minority of people have left Earth altogether, terraforming a few marginally habitable planets, facing years of struggle. Finally, life is becoming acceptable. The inhabitants of these colonies have altered themselves through genetic engineering to make life easier in harsh environments. They can interact with machines and robots. They are the Galateans. A few Galateans – roboteers – have taken this technology to an extreme degree. They are able to move into a different, micro world, which can take any shape they wish, almost becoming the robot they control, seeing what it sees, escaping the limitations of human life.
The people of Earth have changed, too. Religion has replaced science, society is divided among several competitive cults, all of whom detest the Galateans as evil and want them extinct. And to do that, they must also travel to the stars.
Galatean starships are enormous vessels and yet they are manned by just a handful of crew members. They control the ship from their bunks, barely having to move a muscle. But to look after the nuts and bolts of the spaceship, so much of it a no go zone for human beings due to radiation levels, each vessel needs a roboteer. Will Kuno-Monet is roboteer aboard Ariel. He is the newest member of Captain Ira’s crew, inexperienced and untested. That is about to change.
When Ariel witnesses the latest and devastating weapon from Earth in action, it becomes clear that everything in the war has changed. For the first time, Earthers have technology that Galateans can’t match. Will and the crew fall into the heart of the conflict, one that could destroy the Galateans forever. But Will makes a discovery that will turn the conflict on its head, with the potential to alter mankind’s entire understanding about its place in the universe. Everything is at stake.
Roboteer is one of the most thrilling and involving science fiction novels that I’ve read in a year that is proving a sci fi wonderland. That Roboteer is a debut novel is astonishing – the action is second to none with spectacular battle sequences but even more impressive than those are the moments in which we witness Will as his robots’ senses. We move through space at the head of a torpedo, we meander through endless ship pipes and tubes looking out for the smallest cracks. When in charge of these robots, each of which he fills with personality, Will creates vivid control rooms – such as a steam train signal box. This retreat he has into other worlds becomes something of a life saver for Will through the novel and it makes his character, which is fascinating anyway, stand out a mile. But it’s not just Will that grabs our imagination. Ariel is a remarkable ship, its method of control very different from the one we’re more used to with ship minds. Watching Ira and his crew manipulate this enormous vessel through a type of mind control is compelling.
Will is a great character but so too are the rest of the crew. The captain and Rachel stand out for our empathy towards them while Hugo is immensely irritable. But even Hugo has the occasional redeemable quality especially as he finds himself tested in ways he could not have imagined. The Earthers are most definitely the baddies but it is more complex than that. Their General Gustav despises the Galateans as much as any man but he is a scientist, not a religious fanatic and he struggles to cope with the control of the Prophet.
Alex Lamb expertly moves the perspective around the main protagonists, switching from one to another, upping the pace while also providing insight into the conflict between the Galateans and Earthers. We are allowed to empathise with Gustav, to witness events on a strangely transformed Earth, while still cheering on Will and his crew, enjoying their little spats, while knowing that they are being brought closer together through the most extraordinary and, at times, terrifying events.
Roboteer is a wonderful mix of classic and original science fiction. Its plot is enormously enjoyable, putting us on the edge of our seat for much of the time. Alex Lamb writes so well and he also knows how to engage us with his characters. It is a very visual novel. There are moments of wonder, which I need in science fiction, and there are also great mysteries – none of which I’ve mentioned here as you need to discover them for yourselves. Above all else, though, Roboteeer is great fun!