Friday, 26 January 2018

Lena's Nest - by Rosalie Warren

It's not easy to write an original science fiction story about artificial beings given the rich history of this subgenre. Robots have been our constant literary companions since Karel ńĆapek's 1926 play, (R.U.R), Isaac Asimov's noble machines and beyond. Rosalie Warren, however, pulls it off with aplomb in her close-up and personal psychological scifi thriller, Lena's Nest.

And it feels on the leading edge of today's fast-changing AI research. Lots of robot sci-fi novels - even the classics - give but a wave of the hand to the scientific and technological derivations of their sentient mechanical creations, be they benign or monstrous. Lena's Nest, however, explores the fundamentals of artificial life - including the ethical and psychological considerations - without compromising the novel's compelling narrative. This no doubt results from the author herself being computer science professional with expertise in linguistics, psychology and artificial intelligence.

Ms.Warren, uses her expertise to draw characters and tell a good story, while never burdening it with gratuitous didactic details. We're on Dr. Lena Curtis' side from when she awakens from a prolonged coma - or at least believes so - on page one following a serious auto accident.

Lena, like the author, is a computer scientist specializing in robotics. Up until her car crash, she had been developing ethical protocols for artificial intelligence and robotics programs, never realizing that her work may have dramatic impact on future society. We relate to Lena as a woman and mother, not simply a scientist -- from the start. Coming out of her "coma," Lena reunites with her children and family and tries to sort herself out, only to notice strange, dreamlike anomalies.

The narrative is intimate and juicy - an eerily somatic trip through the protagonist's inner space that doesn't slow down. You feel Lena's fears in nightmarish fashion: for example at the opening of Chapter 19: "The terror was like nothing she had ever known. Lena had previously thought that the worst hell she could suffer was that of seeing her children hurt ... but this was unbelievably worse. It threw her into pure, self-focused, primal horror. She had believed she no long had a body, but her heart was pounding now, thumping harder with every beat. Her abdomen was full of ice-cold fear and her brain teamed with... What?"

I'll sidestep spoilers and keep mum on further plot details. Suffice to note that  Lena's Nest becomes a suspenseful journey through our myriad states of consciousness - natural and artificial. Lena faces existential choices at every turn - between romantic and familial love, being in- or out-of-body, life or death. How would you like to suddenly be confronted first-hand by future generations really think - or forget - about you? Would you rather live as a synthetic being in a brave new world divorced from past life, or dwell among those you love in an idyllic-but-illusory bygone reality? Could you get used to existing in a totally alien, artificial body? Are you the total of your memories, or more? Would non-existence be terrifying or serenely appealing, given these choices?

Like all compelling science fiction, Lena's Next takes us on a wild adventure beyond the boundaries of everyday existence while raising consciousness about the underlying psychological, social and philosophical issues of our own, present and uncertain realities.

- Umberto Tosi, author of Our Own Kind, Ophelia Rising. High Treason, and Milagro on 34th Street.
 He has been a member of Authors Electric since May 2015.