I previously read Owen Stanley’s novel “The Missionaries.” That was a satire about primitive people running up against the insanity of United Nations social engineering. Because I enjoyed his writing I figured I’d give “The Promethean” a whirl. This book takes place in the same world as “The Missionaries” but since the subject involves humanoid robots and human-level artificial intelligence I’ve slightly stretched the definition by including it in science fiction. But it also could be called a social satire or a social comedy.
The title is an echo of the full title of Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus.” In our case Dr. Frankenstein is represented by Harry Hockenheimer, a depressed American billionaire approaching forty and feeling like a failure. The mundane source of his vast wealth left him scientifically unfulfilled. He desired to create a scientific marvel and what he decides on is a robot so advanced in mind and body that it can fool all even the most intelligent audience.
The story proceeds from his plan to secretly build his man in England to the adventures of his creation, Frank Meadows interacting with modern British society in its various facets, from a small town pub, to appearing on a day time reality television show, to a University faculty dinner, and finally to an invitation at 10 Downing Street.
Along the way we meet several interesting characters who represent various facets of society and various philosophical bents including the scourge of our age, the Social Justice Warriors. But from my point of view, the most interesting character is a Scotsman academic, Dr. Habakkuk McWrath, Reader in Extreme Celtic Studies. His pugnacious and colorful speech inspires Frank to assert his humanity even in the face of the Three Laws of Robotics.
And the book concludes at its absurd climax. And what is the lesson of this social satire? I really don’t know. Perhaps it is just that humanity has reached a point where a rational appraisal of modern life can no longer find a reason to continue. The absurdity of what we do and why we do it has finally reached a point where scrapping the whole enterprise and starting over is the best way forward. But that is just my guess. Let’s just say it is a tale questioning the definition of intelligent life. It’s a moderate length story, about 170 pages and moves right along. I liked it but I will caution that it is a mild tale and cannot be mistaken for an adventure story. More of a droll cautionary tale of the world we now inhabit.