Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Made to Kill, by Adam Christopher

This week I'm reviewing Made to Kill, a short little novel that's part pulp noir hardboiled detective fiction, and part robot science-fiction adventure. Both of these subjects are stories that I have a fondness for, although robots are certainly far more of a favorite of mine, so it seemed like a good book for me to listen to. My impression of the book though is...more or less mixed. It's not a bad book, and there are parts that I enjoyed quite a bit, but there are parts that also left me scratching my head. I'm not sure if this book is subtly brilliant or just suffers from poor writing, which leaves me not entirely sure what to make of it.

The book follows the adventures of Raymond Electromatic, the very last robot on earth and a private detective who runs a small office with his computer assistant/boss Ada in sunny Los Angeles in the 1960's. At least, that's the official cover story. Secretly Raymond is a highly skilled hitman who can be relied upon to discreetly remove obstacles from this mortal coil for reasonable fees. Raymond is especially useful in this regard because his magnetic tape memory can only record up to twenty-four hours, which means he never has any memory of anyone who's hired him or anyone he's killed. Raymond's life is made far more complicate however, when a woman arrives in his office with a sack filled with gold bars and a request to kill a prominent movie star. There's a catch, however: Raymond has to find the movie star first.

The biggest impression I was left with this story was Raymond is an unreliable narrator and I'm not entirely sure if that was intentional or not. Raymond has some long-term memory storage which gives him his personality, his command of the English language, and knowledge of general facts necessary to navigate day to day life. But, as I said, Raymond only has space for twenty-four hours of short term memory and every day he takes out his memory tape and replaces it with a new one. The result is a lot of things Ray tells us to be true are informed to him from Ada, who's already established as not being entirely honest with Ray. So it just raises questions as to whether what Ray says can be believed or not. If this was intentional it's a brilliant bit of writing, but I'm not left with the impression it necessarily was.

A good example is Raymond's explanation of how he became the last robot on earth. To provide a condensed version here, basically in the 1950's there was a move to develop and build robots to take over a large number of menial jobs and make life for humans better. However a combination of the Uncanny Valley and human fear of change meant that the robots were quickly phased out in a matter of years. Raymond Electromatic is the only robot left on earth as a result. Personally, there's something about this story that doesn't quite add up. First of all, Ray talks about this like it was something in the distant past, saying some people are ''old enough to remember''. But this is something that happened in the past decade. It'd be like someone today saying there are still some people old enough to remember the Invasion of Iraq in 2003. Technically speaking that's true, but I remember the Invasion of Iraq and I'm only 27, I just act like an old geezer. Furthermore we're told that people don't really trust robots and usually stay out of Raymond's way, but for the most part people seem to like Raymond just fine. This includes teenagers at an ice cream parlor. Teenagers, I might add, who may have remembered robots from when they were kids. After all, I can remember things from when I was six or seven.

This leads to another thing that leaves me scratching my head: why a private eye or, for that matter, a hitman? It would make sense of Ray was vaguely human-looking or even close to human looking but he simply isn't. He's described as being six feet ten, an extremely unusual height outside a basketball team and sure to attract notice. Furthermore his body's made up of bronzed steel, which I think would be rather memorable, even if it's covered by a hat and trenchcoat. Furthermore, he's the only robot in the entire world. If Ray was one of hundreds or even thousands of robots that all looked alike, he could easily blend in for undercover snooping or for assasinations. It'd be impossible to pick him out of a line up. But in this case:

Officer: Did you see anything unusual lately?
Witness: You know, I did. There was a robot poking around the other day asking a lot of questions about my neighbor.
Officer: Well, there's only one robot in the world so that narrows our list of suspects to...one.

I mean, I guess Raymond's so good at his job that he's never left any evidence to make someone even suspect a robot's involved, much less foul play, but it feels like his cover could be blown so easily by an errant witness.

One other thing that I noticed was Ray tended to include details in his narration that people wouldn't normally include, like ''I opened the door, got out of the car, and then closed the door.'' If a person was saying that, you could get away with just saying, ''I got out of the car.'' It's assumed you normally will use the door to get out of cars, although if you're jumping out the window or using an ejection seat you usually mention that. There's just little excessive details like that, but I think it may be intentional. Raymond is, after all, a robot with a precise, if somewhat limited memory. So a robot may record details a human being might consider ''insignificant''. If it was a deliberate style choice on the part of the author, it's a very clever idea, but it could also be bad writing.

Overall my feelings are kind of mixed. I don't read or listen to a lot of detective stories so I don't always figure out the plots right away and usually am catching up when everything's revealed at the end. There are elements to this book that could either be really really clever, or just bad writing, and I just don't have enough evidence one way or the other to say which it is. If you like robots and hard boiled detectives, it's a book that has both with some interesting twists. Definitely worth checking out.

- Kalpar

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