Book review: The Other Kind of Life

Oliver Long, Writer

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I’ve always loved the idea of cyberpunk. It’s hard to deny the glamour of skilled criminals opposing corrupt megacorporations–and the themes seem more relevant than ever in today’s society. But the classic writers of the genre, such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, never gripped me. The protagonists were world-weary joyless bad___es whose behavior never really made sense to me: they’re just too cool to explain why they do anything to the reader, and if you can’t keep up you’re out of luck, pal.

So Shamus Young’s novel The Other Kind of Life is just what I’ve been looking for. Fresh out of prison, protagonist Maxwell Law looks like the same hard-bitten unsympathetic jerk at first glance. However, he’s quickly revealed to be both kinder and less experienced than the others. The world’s changed a lot in the three years he’s been in prison and he struggles to adapt, reflecting the rapid pace of technological and societal shifting in our current world.

Max explains his reasoning in a well-written internal monologue and makes a lot of humanizing mistakes.

The main plot of the story focuses on robots going haywire and killing people. That sounds pretty hackneyed at first glance, but Young is a computer programmer, and works hard to create a realistic depiction of AI–it’s not the result of disabling the morality program or deciding that humans are bad for the world or something. In fact, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to call The Other Kind of Life an essay on AI wrapped up in a shiny coating of intrigue and engaging characters. There are a lot of fun metaphors that make understanding how the robots “think” in this setting easy and entertaining, and makes the reveal of why the robots are becoming homicidal self-consistent and satisfying.  

The worldbuilding is excellent as well. The central city, Rivergate, was decolonized recently but remains dependent on the former empire’s tourism business. This makes a bit of background tension between the “tourist” and “local” parts of the city that emphasizes the central conflict since the robot company is based in this colonial nation.

The Other Kind of Life is an entertaining, cerebral, and thematically resonant novel that’s well worth the read.