Humans, Bow Down
Robots: humanoid, Internet of Things robots
What it gets right about robots: Nothing.
Humans, Bow Down is about a near future dystopia where humanoid robots have taken over the world from the dirty, less intelligent, and certainly less attractive humans. Actually it should be titled Humans, Run Away. As in: Run away and flee books like this one.
Humans, Bow Down is a New York Times bestseller (Yes, it?s really on the list- it?s why I bought the book) by James Patterson and YA author Emily Raymond. James Patterson is the thriller writer who wrote the book that became the really good movie Along Came a Spider with Morgan Freeman and the Alex Cross series. He also writes award winning children's and YA novels. He is a famous, successful writer and one would expect an interesting book even if he knew nothing about robots.
I am grateful that as a child or as a young adult, I never encountered a book like this. I think it takes being a mature adult to be able to handle material this dreadful, plots so thin, and writing so full of contradictions. An adult can handle that they have just wasted $16. A young adult having spent their allowance money might become bitter. Or they may think that if this is what qualifies as a print best seller, then they should just watch YouTube.
The book starts off with a mouthy teenage girl called Six fending for herself and making poor life choices in a post-apocalyptic Denver suburb run by humanoid robots call Hubots (Human robots, get it?). The Hubots took over the world in The Great War, and are based in Denver conveniently located with in driving distance to the hidden sophisticated laboratory leading the rebellion.
Think of Six as Katniss Everdeen, only smoking weed and sniffing glue- though in this book, the point of getting high is to reinforce that she is Oppressed because, as we all know, oppressed people do drugs, and that you the reader should not do drugs because you aren't oppressed by robots but you should not look down upon poor people who do drugs. Six or Sixie is her nickname, as humans are now referred to by their slightly longer social security numbers and humans with their pitiful cognitive capabilities cope by calling each other by some clever variant on the first couple of numbers. Apparently being called "Sarah," which is her name, is way too hard to handle.
Kat-Sixie has only her best friend, a boy named Dubs, who we know immediately will either a) die saving her, b) realize that the two of them belong together, or c) both. Star Trek red shirt character? Peeta from The Hunger Games? Reece from The Terminator? That's some dramatic tension! It's good to be in the hands of a famous professional writer.
The book evolves over its nearly 100 exceptionally short, comic book style chapters to a "human girl says, robot girl says" format. We get Six?' view of the world, then MikkyBo?s view (yes, that a "Bo" for "bot" at the end of her name, you just want to bitch slap the writers for that alone).
MikkyBo is the classic Enemy Mine antagonist. She's very likeable, despite initially being so pro-robot, anti-human that I expected her to break out into "Tomorrow belongs to me" like the young Nazi brown shirt did in Cabaret. Of course, she is going to undergo an awakening.
Given that she works as a new detective in the Denver police, her awakening is triggered by the standard detective thriller plot- she uncovers systematic police abuse of humans orchestrated by higher powers. Her highly decorated father was a detective who retired suddenly years ago. MikkyBo has forgotten to ask why he retired so suddenly until things get dicey for her and then dad decides to ?fess up that he had protested the literally inhumane treatment of humans.
If twitter and cell phones still existed, MikkyBo would have started the #humanLivesMatter hashtag.
MikkyBo is assigned to retrieve the last pocket-sized quantum computer that just happens to belong to Kat-Six. The quantum computer has enough computer power or information or something that could allow the humans to rise up. (Surprisingly, we won?t see that McGuffin in the final denouement.) Kat-Six uses it to revisit the memories of her beloved parents, killed in the robot uprising, never suspecting that there is more to it. Despite knowing that Kat-Six has the quantum computer, that they know her name and number, that she has stolen a car which has a computer in it that connects to the Cloud and thus should be trackable even by 2010 standards, and that Kat-Six connects to the Cloud when she uses the quantum computer and could be tracked, none of the robot police have thought to locate her or even go to her tiny room in the apartment building next to the garbage dump on the human reservation (nice shout out for Native Americans, that could be us on rez so have some sympathy!). MikkyBo, being elite, is able to overcome this plot incongruity and seeks Kat-Sixty through old-fashioned shoe leather.
As you might guess, Kat-Sixty and MikkyBo will fight to near death but eventually become best friends and MikkyBo will be replacement family to Kat-Sixie. They will eventually declare their love for each other as they save each other?s lives over and over again, but fortunately for us, that love is platonic. That the only trope that the book avoids-- the increasingly frequent out of place, gratuitous lesbian scene that is popping up in movies and TV shows.
Together Kat-Sixie and MikkyBo will-- repeatedly-- sneak out undetected from the secret laboratory home of the genius scientist who built the robots. The genius scientist is, wait for it, Kat-Sixie's grandfather who hates her over a misunderstanding. Once the misunderstanding is cleared up, all is fine in the very next paragraph and she now gets to drive her grandfather's jeep to liberate her sister and brother, whom the grandfather loved dearly but was allowing them to rot in a dark dungeon. Love expresses itself in many forms, the book may be saying. Who are we to judge?
In terms of robotics, there?s nothing that even vaguely qualifies as real robotics or real science or even real wireless technology and Cloud computing. The Hubots are perfect human replicants who have families with little children robots (do they physically grow? If so, how?). The Hubots are beautiful and talented, like the genetically engineered humans in Gattaca. They are engineered but have some combination of better-than-skin skin to be shredded while climbing mountains or the sides of buildings and then miraculously heals in time to look perfect and beautiful, then be shredded again a few minutes later. They have better-than-blood blood that can be splattered as MikkyBo is being betrayed by her Joseph Goebbels boss. Indeed, Hubots sound like a bio-med project to repair humans gone wrong, but the book never gives us a reason why the grumpy grandfather created them with massive infusions of government funding. It doesn't appear to be a deep state project, just a science-gone-wrong non-explanation. Or why none of these brilliant, beautiful robots have tracked down his hidden lab. Probably because the Hubots are too busy eating steak and driving Corvettes.
The only conceptual difference between biological humans and Hubots is that robots don?t have emotions. Well, except love of their family. And love of the Hubot race. And pride. And jealousy. And they get discouraged by negative reinforcement from their bosses and have to meditate on how good ice cream tastes to cheer up. But if we ignore any psychological definition of emotion, sure, the robots don?t have emotions.
Indeed, a hallmark of Humans, Bow Down is the deep commitment to the Old School robots-want-to-take-over-the-world-in-order-to-become-human-themselves theme. While top rated science fiction books like Ancilliary Justice and Ian Banks' Culture Universe posit that peer-level intelligent robots don't want to be human, they just want to be themselves, Humans, Bow Down bravely doubles down on the Pinocchio theme from the 1940?s.
In Humans, Bow Down, robots want to be human so completely that they modify themselves to be able eat steak in fancy restaurants in front of ragged, starving humans. If you're a robot, human suffering is apparently better than A-1 sauce.
Humans, Bow Down has the dubious distinction of being the first book where I've encountered a transgender robot. MikkyBo's brother, ChrisBo (really, enough with the "Bo" suffix already), is nominally male but gender identifies as female. He makes a fantastic drag queen at the cabaret, because robots should follow convenient stereotypes. And fortunately for him all the oppressed humans appear to have enough time, money, and space to host cabarets- after all, isn't this how the Apollo in Harlem got started?
But whoa, let's get back to one of The Big Life Lessons the book is imparting to Young Adults. It should be no surprise that robot society sees this as a criminal glitch/software bug and so ChrisBo is persecuted. Bad robot society! The take-away lesson is that we humans in the real world should get out there and support all those bathroom laws that allow a person to pick whatever dirty public toilet they feel is the least life threatening.
For me, the book poses fundamental questions about the purpose of robots. I think the authors see robots as economic drivers. While many of us might think of robots in manufacturing or in nuclear power plants as helpful to the economy and the planet, the authors seem to see the economic benefits of robots in terms of creating a cash-cow YA series like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. Except, wait, those series had plots and were set in a world that made sense and was consistent. Or is the ultimate destiny of robots to be a mechanism for trying to cash in on all the discussions of weaponized drones in the media? Or maybe tap into the graphic novel/manga craze? Or is the best use of robots as a way to overcome envy over the success of Westworld?
In the meantime, I?m not afraid of a robot uprising but I am afraid of the next installment in the Humans, Bow Down series.