Judged purely on its title and cover, Alex Lamb’s Roboteer could very well be mistaken for the sort of third-rate pulp fiction that many people still associate with sci-fi as a genre. In fact, upon closer inspection it turns out to be a gripping, characterful epic set to a grim future backdrop of religion, morality, and mankind’s inherent flaws. It features Will, a young man genetically engineered to be capable of programming and controlling thousands of semi-aware robots, who is thrust into a new crew aboard a high-stakes mission that might affect the very future of his race.
Will belongs to a colony of humans who once split away from the greedy, self-destructive people still inhabiting Earth and who, forced to take up residence on the unstable and resource-poor world of Galatea, have turned to genetic engineering as a means to survive. In a nice twist on the usual order, the ‘Earthers’ – led by a dictatorial prophet who preaches of humanity’s purity and right to rule – form the antagonists, technologically less developed but possessed of endless resources and a genocidal hatred of anything that doesn’t fit with their religion. This all forms part of an incredibly vivid setting that Lamb has created, rich with detail and fascinatingly thought-out. The story’s plot is no less complex as Will and his crew investigate what at first appears to be a newly developed Earther weapon but soon turns out to involve worryingly calculating intervention from distant aliens and a battle for not just mankind’s soul but its very survival as a species.
Two things particularly stand out here – firstly the level of world building, which is phenomenal, but also the level of detail that Lamb has put into the science involved. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword actually, in that on the one hand there’s an incredible sense that the science might actually work, instead of the usual Star Trek-inspired techno-babble, but on the other hand it does sometimes feel a little bewildering to be reading about particle resonance, Casimir-buffers and curvon gradients in the midst of an exciting, fast-paced story. Look past that though and there are well-drawn characters, not just Will but his crew and even some of the Earthers as well, a fantastic sense of pace and just an amazing sense of scale to the whole story.
Interestingly, despite the fact that Roboteer is the first in a planned trilogy it stands up as a satisfying story in itself, with only the amazingly detailed world building to really suggest that there might be more still to come. It won’t be for everyone, not least because of the occasionally-distracting hard science elements, but anyone looking for an enjoyable, exciting story with a complex and detailed setting would do well to look past the cover and take the plunge.