Maxine McArthur,
Less Than Human
(Warner, 2004)

All Eleanor McGuire is interested in is perfecting her household robot Sam. Unfortunately, when one of her company's industrial robots malfunctions and kills an operator, she is the only senior engineer available. Thus, it falls to her to make sure that Tomita Electronics is not liable for the death.

Assistant Inspector Ishihara, summoned to investigate the death at Kawanishi Metalworks, has no idea that the gaijin woman examining the robot is about to become very important to him in connection with a completely different case. He has been investigating the apparent suicides of four teenagers in another part of Osaka. But the more that Ishihara and Eleanor find out about the Kawanishi case, the more it becomes apparent that their two cases are linked, especially when another robot in a different factory malfunctions.

Maxine McArthur, an Australian writer, spent 16 years living in Japan, giving her a unique perspective on Japanese culture. Less Than Human alternates between McGuire and Ishihara as viewpoint characters, and it's a bit startling to read a Japanese character calling another a "bloke," though surely the Japanese language has some similar slang term.

The near-future Japanese setting is interesting; since I tend to read fantasy, the break from pseudo-medieval European settings was refreshing. Though the outcome of the novel was slightly predictable, it was nevertheless an exciting, enjoyable story.

On the author's website, she states that her intention in writing Less Than Human was to examine the moments leading up to the introduction of a world-changing technology. Read in that light, Less Than Human -- which won the 2004 Aurealis Award for Science Fiction -- is certainly as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.

by Laurie Thayer
8 October 2005

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