Sci-Fi Novellas

Review: An Unnatural Life, by Erin K. Wagner

Robot fiction is near and dear to me, as evidenced by this blog’s chosen name. There’s something fascinating to me about the dynamic between human and machine, and the many implications as the gap between those two states begins to close. ‘Are robots equal to humans?’ is a question that has been posited throughout science fiction for decades, and it continue to create fascinating commentary and insight into the minds of mankind. This conversation is front and center in Erin K. Wagner’s An Unnatural Life, giving us insight into how humanity might lash out at the thought of robots achieving equal rights to humans.

NOTE: I was provided a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest, unbiased review.

Solid Storytelling & Story Structure

To start, the novella’s intricate structure creates a moving story that doesn’t let up. Wagner intertwines past, present, and future, intersecting at a new defining moment for Europa and its inhabitants. We see the promise our protagonist felt at starting life on a new world. We see the realities of setting foot in a colony that is nothing more than a small town, constrained by its domes and the harsh environment outside the glass. We see small-minded people continuing their stubbornness to expand their way of imagining the universe and mankind’s place in it. We get glimpses of the search for life on the surface, and inklings that mankind and robotkind aren’t alone after all. These pieces come together to form a story that ultimately lays bare humanity’s many faults.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but there’s so much that can be said about it. Wagner throws us into the bleak reality of humanity’s hatred of the ‘other’ with a chain of events that’s as eye-opening as it is tragic. When examined as a whole, the book paints a gripping picture of the hardships and epic struggles to gain acceptance from a society who refuses to treat you as an equal.

Compelling Protagonists & Solid Character Growth

The protagonist, Aiya Ritsehrer, unwittingly sets a rollercoaster in motion on her first visit with the Robotnik prisoner 812-3. In the short span of this tightly drawn novella, we see extraordinary character growth as Aiya follows the path of justice for 8. We see the hatred from everyone around her and the prejudices that constantly threaten to overtake Aiya’s work, but in the end, justice prevails. No matter the loses or the humiliations, Aiya never falters. Wagner has managed to create a hero whose mind, heart, and passion for justice are the weapons used to win the novella’s central battle.

812-3 presents a fascinating character study as well. With few words and little insight into 8’s mind, we still see a surprising amount of growth. It’s clear 8 takes the human Robotnik prejudices to heart. At first, 8 sits quietly in the prison cell, staring at the wall, uninterested in Aiya’s mission to serve and resigned to mankind’s denial of justice. Arguments and new events reveal themselves gradually, painting a vastly different picture than the killer robot portrayed by the military. We see a being capable of feeling love, one who wants to work and live without fear of prejudice and mistreatment. The circumstances of the crime are pulled straight out of a typical mystery novel, but it’s the characters who make it something entirely new. Wagner’s usage of a common crime story alongside the dynamics of human-vs-robot creates something new and exciting to imagine.

A Powerful Argument

Above all, An Unnatural Life is a well-executed story about equality and the horrors of humanity when faced with acceptance of the unknown. Wagner has masterfully placed the robots-as-humans quandary front and center, examining the legal aspects of this often-emotional argument. This argument is at the heart of every robot story, asking human readers to examine their own prejudices about whether the basic rights of humanity can be granted to beings we would typically consider to be machines. Wagner presents a solid examination, leaving us with much to think about.

An Unnatural Life

By Erin K. Wagner
Published by Tordotcom
Paperback, 190 pages

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