#SciFiMonth Audiobook Review: Activation Degradation by Marina J. Lostetter
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: HarperAudio (September 14, 2021)
Length: 9 hrs and 58 mins
Author Information: Website
Narrator: Hayden Bishop
The publisher description compares Activation Degradation to The Murderbot Diaries, which is quite ambitious, to say the least. But how does that really stack up? Well, let’s just say I despise blurbs like these for a reason, mainly because they have a way of raising undue expectations and setting readers up for disappointment, not to mention that, more often than not, they tend to diminish the books themselves. Personally, Activation Degradation did not feel anything like Murderbot to me, but honestly, that’s not a bad thing. Although it also features a cyborg protagonist, the story itself is uniquely its own and offers something different.
Readers are thrown into the action right away, as the book opens with an alien attack on an orbital helium-3 mine above the planet Jupiter where the defender bot known as Unit Four was being stored, triggering its activation. The sudden switch is disorienting, but with the help of its handler, Unit Four is able to fend off the invaders and protect its home and its precious cargo. However, its actions ultimately lead it to become captured, though it has protocols in place for dealing these kinds of situations too. Following its orders, Unit Four is prepared to lay low and observe the enemy while awaiting retrieval by its handler, whose arrival should be imminent.
What Unit Four did not expect though, is to have its entire worldview blown apart. The enemies are not as they have been described to it by its handlers, and nothing in its databanks can resolve this discrepancy nor any of the new information it is receiving now from its captors. All of it can be a lie, of course, but somehow Unit Four doesn’t think so. The sudden realization that it may have been deceived its entire short life sends shock overloading its systems, but at least now Unit Four knows it has an even more important mission. Its sister-units are still under the control of their makers, unaware of the truth, and in order to free them, Unit Four must also save everyone on the ship before time runs out.
One reason I love reading books about A.I. or robot protagonists is being able to experience a whole different point of view. These characters, the best ones at least, should be relatable but also sound distinctly “robot-like” to make them stand out from their human counterparts. That is, after all, why I love Murderbot, whose personality is quirky enough to feel “other” but still familiar enough to be charming and appealing. Bringing this back to Activation Degradation though, Unit Four is definitely a more simplistic character, because it is also a more emotional one. While this in itself is not a negative, I certainly hadn’t expected to suspend my disbelief so much when it came to Unit Four’s plausibility as a cyborg protagonist.
On its surface, Activation Degradation also reads very much like an action sci-fi thriller. I’ve read one other book by Marina J. Lostetter before this, which was the moody, broody dark fantasy mystery The Helm of Midnight, and it’s a testament to the author’s versatility, I suppose, that this one felt completely different. For one, the story moved at a breakneck pace that just wouldn’t let up, with info dumping kept to a minimal. The prose was also lighter and more readable, creating an energetic and entertaining atmosphere that’s obviously geared more towards mass appeal. I’m sure it comes as no surprise when I say this was by far a much more fun book to read.
Still, there was a lot going on in this story too, and perhaps not enough time to fully explore the themes and topics the author wanted to bring attention to. A major twist was also telegraphed too early, spoiling a couple of the plot’s biggest surprises, though that might just be due to the way I approached the book by overthinking things. Needless to say, this is a novel best experienced with no expectations; simply enjoy this one as an action-adventure story, let it whisk you away and treat any allusions to deeper philosophical messages as a nice bonus.
All told, I would consider this for your TBR if you’re into thrilling adventure sci-fi that explores the themes of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human, though Murderbot fans please treat what’s written in the publisher’s blurb with a grain of salt. Overall a solid novel that combines the excitement of space escapades with the complexities of human drama.