Zero Echo Shadow Prime, by Peter Samet
Quick Description: Frankenstein’s monster would deeply approve
Mary Shelley, hold onto your hat! Here’s what you might have written had you been alive in the 21st century. Zero Echo Shadow Prime explores the same rich themes as Frankenstein (overreach of technology, human hubris, identity, the relationship between creator and creation, defying death) but does so in an even richer and more multifaceted way.
Plot Synopsis: The protagonist (a dauntless yet lonely young nerd named Charlie) is dying and her father decides to take the desperate step of turning her brain into software and giving it to an evil corporation which he misguidedly trusts. The villainous CEO of the corporation, Jude Adler, uses Charlie’s brain for three experiments: Echo, Shadow, and Prime. (The word “Zero” refers to the original, human Charlie.) “Echo” is a gladiatorial simulation where different versions of Charlie’s brain are forced to battle each other and evolve into a super soldier. “Shadow” is complicated, but basically a virtual personal assistant that either lives in your brain or projects a hologram of itself. Prime is an immortal robot replica of a human.
What impressed me: If an aspiring writer friend of mine had described the plot of this book to me, as something they intended to write, I probably would have started laughing hysterically and accused them of hubris. These three weighty science fiction concepts would have been difficult to tackle one by one, much less all at once. Yet somehow the protagonist Charlie holds it together, and makes it all work. The book is action-packed, fast-paced, and exciting. And despite its complex nature, I never found myself confused or struggling to follow the plot- everything was streamlined and clear. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who was brand new to the science fiction genre (it would probably be a little much for them to swallow). However, tried-and-true science fiction fans are likely to reel away from this book screaming, “THIS IS THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION I’VE EVER READ!”
This book is a great example of how indie books tend to be more creative than their traditionally published counterparts, more willing to take risks. A wise editor probably would have dissuaded Peter Samet from trying to tackle something so over-ambitious as this project. Since his mad gambit appears to have worked out in the end, I am glad there was no cooler head to prevail.
The idealistic aspect of this book: What kept me emotionally engaged in this book was Charlie’s intense and idealistic personality. Grappling with the question of “what is human,” in a world that can produce artificial intelligences gives us a million shades of ethical grey to play with. A normal person might have been repulsed and frightened by copies of themselves being uploaded into robots, monsters, and shadows. But Charlie unquestioningly considers every copy of herself to be her “sister,” no matter how monstrous and inhuman it appears on the outside. She doesn’t struggle with their humanity; she instantly accepts them as kin. In a world where we “other” so easily, where all kinds of “isms” are prevalent, I considered this instant acceptance to be both morally courageous and inspiring. It was by far the most emotional part of the book for me.
How I found this book: Like almost every book I review here, I found about this book through Twitter. Why not drop by and say hi to @– I’m sure he’ll appreciate it!
What was missing for me in this book: Although I felt that the concepts of Echo (the evolving super-soldiers) and Prime (the immortal robot) were more or less fully developed, I felt like the concept of Shadow was short-changed. It’s by far the most complex concept; a Shadow is a piece of programming that lives in “smart cells” injected into a person’s body, so in addition to functioning like a personal assistant computer and projecting creative holograms, it can also control a person’s hormones or neural activity (and perform medical services). It’s basically an intelligent slave that is attached to your body, which can appear or vanish at will. This is fine if the Shadow is just a computer, but if it develops true consciousness, all the ethical problems associated with slavery, coercion, and one-sided power obviously appear.
The main shadow-human relationship in the book was a consensual and loving relationship. I suppose that makes it more or less analogous to, say the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings– yes, there’s a master and a slave, but the ugliness is mitigated in some aspects by mutual personal attachment. Note I say “some aspects”– there can never be anything that totally redeems the horror of one-sided power. Thankfully, the author touches briefly on this issue a couple times, but he doesn’t explore it or resolve it fully in the way I would’ve desired. (Finding a way for the Shadow and the Human to become each other’s equals is what would have resolved it for me).
Now let’s address the second main shadow-human relationship. Charlie herself becomes a Shadow, and is assigned to the son of the villainous CEO, with the assignment of cheering him up after his wife’s death. Although she feels some sympathy and respect for the suffering man, she isn’t really in love with him or serving him voluntarily. He doesn’t truly understand that she’s real, more than just a computer, and so he pretty casually demands that she simulate having sex with him (which is possible because she has control over his hormones, neural activity, etc).
I felt like this was a golden opportunity for the book to honestly address some pretty rough and relevant themes: abusive relationships, sex slavery, etc. The technological “Shadow” could pretty much be a metaphor for any human who has been degraded in society’s judgment to a less-than-human status. However, while the author takes out the can opener for that can of worms…. he doesn’t really open it up. We just kind of gloss over everything dark which is happening there, Charlie has some pretty voluntary-looking sex (but her reasons for choosing to have it remain totally unexplained) and we zoom forward with the plot.
I suppose I can’t blame the author too much for refusing to put the very darkest themes in what is already a pretty dark, intense, and emotional book. But it was kind of weird to go halfway there and then stop.
In conclusion: Ultimately, though, what I loved about this book was it made me think. Even though the author shied away from the Shadow-themes, he led me down a path where I was thinking about them, which was pretty interesting for me. This is definitely a smart person’s book; there’s hundreds of things to geek out about, including a truly brilliant description of how Charlie manages to program robot emotions.
I loved that both the protagonist and the villain were strong, powerful females. I loved the message that the power of the human spirit will always shine out, no matter what envelope of technology we wrap it in. I love the idea that a person’s will to love and cooperate, can overcome the most powerful possible drive to hate and mistrust. If you’re ready for an intellectual challenge that will grip you like a giant spider and not put you down until your brain has digested it, try this book.
At last, manifold versions of Frankenstein’s monster get to call out in their own human voices- and ultimately, prevail over their villainous and bigoted creators.