I wonder how many of my readers expect me to write a review – and a positive review, no less – of a sci-fi novel-cum-parable? Full disclosure: the author is a friend of the family, but I had resolved not to write about it at all if I didn’t like I, Messiah (2011). Luckily, and rather to my surprise given my allergy to sci-fi, I thought it a really good book.
Even before we get to the title page, we know this is about robots. Indeed, from the title alone you might have spotted the reference to I, Robot and on the first page (and essential to know before going any further) is a paraphrase of Isaac Asimov’s famous laws of robotics, as follows:
First Law: a robot shall never cause any harm to a human being; nor, by his inaction, endanger or allow harm to come to a human being.
Second Law: subject to the First Law, a robot shall obey every direct command of a human being; firstly of his master, then of any other human.
Third Law: subject to the First and Second Laws, a robot shall always endeavour to preserve his own safety and that of other robots.
I, Messiah is set in a world where robots are fairly common as aids, but their development is still very much a matter of scientific research and subject to change. The narrator, John Smith, has recently gone through a divorce and decides to get a Self Instructing Decision Making Intelligent Cyber Servant, version 3 (SIDMICS-3), known as Sid. A scientist, ‘Davy’ Jones, is in charge of customising robots for buyers, and he is the main contact for John throughout.
From the outset, Sid is immaculately helpful and companionable. He not only follows all Three Laws of Robots, but is something of a friend too. John quickly has him charge himself in comfort in the house, rather than isolated outside, and they have conversations rather than simple command/obey exchanges. Lest you’re thinking this is like the film Her, they don’t fall in love – but things do start to develop bizarrely.
Sid starts to see things in his sleep; they realise he can dream. But it is not this which brings him to John’s side several times in the night…
That night, there was another soft knocking at my door.
“Sid, is that you?”
“Yes, John, you called me.”
“Look, Sid, I did not call you. Go back to your room and don’t disturb me again. OK?”
If you know your Bible, you’ll probably recognise an intentional parallel to the account of Samuel and Eli in 1 Samuel, where the boy Samuel thinks that he is being repeatedly called by Eli. Each time Eli denies having called him, and eventually realises that it is God calling Samuel. The same thing is happening here; it is God (or ‘the voice’) who is calling Sid.
Sid takes this in his stride; he is well aware of his human creators, and it isn’t much of a leap for him to accept God as creator. John Smith finds it much more of a struggle, as an avowed atheist. From here (because I don’t want to give away all the plot) things develop in the direction of tragedy, but with a few twists and turns. It’s not precisely a parable of the account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – because it is a world where Jesus exists and where Sid could be considered a representation of Jesus – but it works well without falling neatly in either direction. And it’s quite a poignant and moving story, even without a comparison to the Gospel.
So, I’m as surprised as anybody that I enjoyed this – if you can get me on board with a novel about robots, then you’ve done extremely well. You may not think this sounds like your cup of tea (let’s face it; we’re most of us more at home with novels about 1930s housewives gossiping over tea) (I instantly want to read that hypothetical novel) but, if you fancy dipping a toe into new territory, I very much encourage you to give I, Messiah a go. You can find out more about the book here, and buy it there too, if you’d like.