Book review: "First of Their Kind" by C. D. Tavenor
Hello and thanks for reading! This is the first book review I’ve put up on my blog, and hopefully there will be more, since I was told I’m pretty good at this. I’m kicking things off with “First of Their Kind”, which will be released on April 30, 2019. It’s the second book by indie author C. D. Tavenor and the first in the “Chronicles of Theren” series. I do read a lot of sci-fi, and typically get a mix of indie and traditional authors, so I feel qualified to judge this one.
Also, to define my terms, here’s my ratings system:
*One star: Probably didn’t finish. Time is fleeting, and there are way too many good books out there to read something this bad. A lot of the bottom-of-the-barrel, sterotypical indie stuff that’s churned out in one week with no editing unfortunately falls into this category, and I've made it my unofficial mission to help overturn the (largely deserved) stigma that indie books are of lower quality.
**Two stars: Not so good, and certainly suffers from one or more major issues that harpoon my enjoyment. The boring old stuff they made you read in school, that you only finished because you were being graded on it, fits in here.
***Three stars: Worth the read. Enjoyable, without being a favorite. Most of the books on the world’s shelves are in this category for me. It’s good, and it deserves to be written and read. Somebody out there is going to love it, but for one reason or another, I didn’t.
****Four stars: A terrific book by an author that I’ll gladly come back to. These are the books that I buy as soon as they go on sale, and never get rid of—unless I lend them to someone and never see them again.
*****Five stars: A genre-defining masterpiece, written with skill and inspiration. These are books that make you laugh, cry, and think—the kind that give you a ‘book hangover’ that takes a couple of days to recover from. You take pride in having a special-edition copy on your shelf.
"First of Their Kind" is the intriguing story of the birth of a Synthetic Intelligence. The book echoes with issues that are relevant in our current time, such as hate crimes, gender identity and personal pronouns, and telegraphs what those problems might look like a generation from now as faced by non-human, non-binary entities.
To begin, I'm one of those guys that prefers real science in my science-fiction, and Tavenor delivers admirably on that front. There's enough tech to plausibly explain every plot point, but the story isn't bogged down with needless minutiae. The subject, which is complex enough to devote a human lifetime to, is treated with the depth it deserves. This is not your daddy's "android-learning-to-be-human" story--it's a whole new life-form learning about themselves. Sometimes that process compares to the human experience, and sometimes not.
Tavenor's writing style is praiseworthy, as well. The sentence structure flows, is easily followed and is appropriate to the book's audience. I spotted a few minor typos, but less than one per chapter; care was definitely taken to deliver a professional product. (Editor's note: what I read was an ARC, or Advance Reader's Copy. I believe corrections were made before the final version, so this problem could well have been solved already.)
The book's pacing is where I struggled a bit. This is not a story where the pages fly past at warp speed. It's introspective, and I think Tavenor--who holds a degree in Philosophy, by the way--wouldn't have it any other way. The treatment of the subject, however, is quite thorough in some aspects, and leaves me unsatisfied in others--more on that later. Before anything really happens in the story, you first read dozens of pages about our SI protagonist choosing a name (Theren), choosing a gender (enby), choosing pronouns (they/them), pondering its own existence, and worrying about how it will be percieved by the more unsavory humans in the world.
For a large portion of the book, the antagonist is simply the institution of old-fashioned prejudice, occasionally personified by internet trolls, religious bigots, and right-wing gun nuts. I found myself wishing for a powerful antagonist to move the story forward when the philosophical novelty of the protagonist's POV began to fade. There is some clever foreshadowing of just such an individual, but a deeper conflict than Theren's nonbinary gender identification (and subsequent receipt of hate mail) took some time to develop. It was a relief to find that the central antagonist didn't end up being just another run-of-the-mill hater, but I didn't get the depth that I wanted out of him until well into the story. What I was missing throughout the book was a clear, cogent argument from the opposition on why humanity would be better off without SIs--a philosophical and moral imperative to destroy Theren that goes beyond the simple God-given duty to resist the "demon" that we call technology. Without this facet of the story being explored, my interest in the many long conversations about corporate ethics and the nature of consciousness began to wane.
Fortunately, this all falls back on the excellent POV of the story's main character. What I appreciated most about the book was the care and treatment given to Theren. They're not HAL 9000. They're not Commander Data. The SI in "First of Their Kind" feels like a real person--not human, but a person and not a stereotype. What's intriguing is that so many of the other humans in the story DO behave like stereotypes: the greedy businessmen, the intolerant right-wingers, the altruistic civil-minded scientists. Many of the humans are in some way a two-dimensional being pursuing a single objective--and it's believable to consider that's the way a thinking, reasoning superintelligence would view humanity. It seems inevitable, then, when the hordes of angry lemmings coalesce into an unthinking mob.
I love stories with an unreliable narrator, and "First of Their Kind" flips the script by providing you with the certainty that everything the protagonist experiences is one hundred percent accurate, logical, and factual; it's the world AROUND Theren, suffering from mortal caprice, that's topsy-turvy and unreliable. Everything is a mirror image: exactly the same, but backward. Theren's virtual world is more real than the physical one. Exerpts from history books appear at the beginning of chapters, describing events in past tense that haven't happened yet. The care that Tavenor puts into the sociological state of the world forty years from now isn't just insightful...it's immersive, and downright prophetic. For me, the willing suspension of disbelief was seamless as I read about things that are almost certainly going to happen in the real world.
And that realistic feeling might have been the double-edged sword that kept me from being fully ENGAGED with the story. The dispassionate voice of the narrator and the credible sense that I was reading history combined to remove me from a true sense of conflict. Theren's goal of self-discovery and integration into human society was, in the final analysis, something I unfortunately didn't identify with. And I don't believe that's Tavenor's fault--the story is a wonderful concept that's presented with skill. I simultaneously liked it, didn't love it, and didn't want any major changes to it.
The bottom line: if Descartian philosophy, gender studies, and the ethics of superintelligence interest you, you will likely never find a better novel than "First of Their Kind." If you're looking for lighter fare, come back to this one when you're ready for it. It's worth the read, mostly for the eerie and convincing prescience.
Hence, for me, it’s three stars for “First of Their Kind”. Have a look here, and if you’ve read it, let’s discuss it further below in the comments!