Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Case of SFR Déjà Vu

Aubrey Watt's PARAGON has been on my radar ever since I learned about it. In a nutshell, the story is an android romance. Here's the cover and blurb:

In the middle of the Arizona desert, a hundred feet underground, the United States military is illegally developing the first emotionally sentient android. Classified top secret, the mission has failed to successfully awaken the first two androids created in the lab.

When brilliant neuroscientist Chal Davidson is called in to assist, the third android is just hours from being awakened. By the time she realizes the vast implications of her work, it's too late to stop the prototype's development. Torn by her moral and scientific responsibilities, Chal is even more confused by the emotional connection she is starting to feel with the newly-created man. The only hope she has is escape--for her and the android--and time is running out...

I was happy to finally read it. But then déjà vu hit me hard and fast. You see, not too long before reading PARAGON I had finished Catherine Asaro's THE PHOENIX CODE (see my post about tracking down a copy here). Here's the cover and blurb:

Deadly awakening

When robotics expert Megan O'Flannery is offered the chance to direct MindSim's cutting-edge program to develop a self-aware android, it's the opportunity of a lifetime. But the project is trouble plagued--the third prototype "killed" itself, and the RS-4 is unstable. Megan will descend into MindSim's underground research lab in the Nevada desert, where she will be the sole human in contact with the RS-4, dubbed Aris. 

Programmed as part of a top-secret defense project, the awakening Aris quickly proves to be deviously resourceful and basically uncontrollable. When Megan enlists the help of Raj Sundaram, the quirky, internationally renowned robotics genius, the android develops a jealous hostility toward Raj--and a fixation on Megan. 

But soon she comes to realize that Raj may be an even greater danger--and that her life may depend on the choice she makes between the man she wants to trust and the android she created.

PARAGON is a story in the vein of THE PHOENIX CODE, but not in the way I expected.

PARAGON'S first third has what I feel are strong similarities to THE PHOENIX CODE's opening chapters. As a result, they distracted me quite a bit. I kept reading to see how the rest of the story played out. Now that I've finished, I want to share a list that's a combination of tagging and highlighting common elements.

Mild spoilers are ahead (some of which are revealed in the blurbs of the books themselves).

* In both stories, the heroine is a scientist at the top of her field.

* Both stories are told entirely from the POV of the heroine.

* Both stories begin with the heroine at a lecture in an auditorium. In THE PHOENIX CODE, she's listening to the lecture. In PARAGON, she's giving the lecture.

* During both scenes, the heroine notices someone unusual in the audience.

* Both heroines are approached by a military-linked company to work with an android prototype. In THE PHOENIX CODE, the heroine is offered a job. In PARAGON, the heroine is kidnapped and strong-armed into doing the work. (Unfortunately, I didn't find the reason for the kidnapping compelling at all, especially since the text indicated the heroine would have jumped at the chance to work on the "Paragon" project. Since she was never given a chance to refuse the job before the kidnapping, it didn't seem logical in my humble (and subjective) opinion. Despite this glitch, the rest of the story has interesting things to offer.)

* In both stories, the heroine is taken to a secret, underground base in the desert.

* In both stories, the heroine comes onto the project after several previous prototypes malfunctioned.

* In both stories, only the heroine is able to help move the android project to the next level.

* Both stories explore similar themes (what it means to be human and similar philosophical issues; the ethics of using sentient androids in warfare; android as "Other"; the challenges of guiding an android through his new life; android sexuality).

* Both stories feature hard SF elements. PARAGON struck me as having slightly more passages that veer off into discourses on this or that scientific topic. In fact, the passages read very much like segments from academic articles. If you enjoy hard SF elements in SFR then that aspect will be right up your alley. The romance is back-ended in that its development occurs in the last third of the story.

* Both books feature mild sexual tension and a sensual love scene. (Meaning they're non-erotic SFRs.)

Other than those similarities, the stories go in different directions.

PARAGON has a kind of "coming of age" feel in that the heroine, a workaholic, discovers the extent to which romance, love and belonging have been missing in her life. So it's definitely a heroine-centric sci-fi romance. THE PHOENIX CODE has more of a techno-thriller focus.

In a guest post Aubrey Watt wrote for TGE, she indicates how THE PHOENIX CODE, in part, inspired PARAGON:

In The Phoenix Code, Asaro shows us the emotional ramifications of an android that becomes attracted to a human as he grows self-aware. And I began to think: what if the robotics expert was the one who fell in love with the android?

Aubrey Watt saw an area THE PHOENIX CODE didn't explore and ran with it. That's part of what piqued my interest in the book. However, I didn't expect to get a vibe, at least in the beginning, so similar to THE PHOENIX CODE. I have mixed feelings about it.
With an android romance, a laboratory setting and military involvement make sense. So maybe I shouldn't have expected anything markedly different from PARAGON.

Still, there are other directions one could take an android romance that begins with an android's birth. I want to read other android romances, but I don't want them to remind me too strongly of Catherine Asaro's work. This is where "same, but different" comes in.

Here's a quick example off the top of my head: what if a corporation, rather than the military, developed a sentient android to provide a service or sell a product? Or maybe the android *is* the product. The love interest could be someone outside of it, such as a journalist or human rights activist.

PARAGON and THE PHOENIX CODE make for an interesting pair of books because of the way they dovetail from a shared premise. That said, if I'd known more about the similarities between the books, I would have spaced them out more. Or maybe not--it's so difficult to resist the call of my favorite science fiction romance tropes!

Joyfully yours,