The Modular Man, Roger MacBride Allen

Bantam Spectra, 1992, 306 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-29559-4

There are no surer ways to inflame a crowd of Science-Fiction geeks than to try to define the “mission” of the genre. Some will argue that there is none; others will use this as a tangent to discussing the definition of SF; others will simply sneak away for more snacks.

As with many other experienced SF geeks, I tend to be amongst the group that slinks away for more food. Not only because I’m a hungry fellow or because the debate tends to be invariably circular, but mostly because I’ve made my peace a long time ago with what SF should be. And that, constant reader, would be a literature of ideas.

Of course, SF should be well-written, packed with vibrant characters and constant entertainment. But that’s not the point. You can walk into any mall bookstore, head for the general fiction section and pick non-genre novels that do all that. But what other literature can seriously examine the human impacts of technological change? Which other literature always starts with “What if?” (Well, okay, Fantasy is the other one) Where else can you read accessible book-length dramatization of future issues that will soon preoccupy us? In Science-Fiction. Purely and simply.

Certainly, the good old school of SF understood this: A standard template for an Analog magazine story was to find a scientific issue, derive a consequent problem with the power of affecting human lives, discuss the issue and then offer a solution to the problem. Hundreds, thousands of stories have been written to that specification. Some were good, some not-so-good, but most of them were unabashed SF.

It’s in this techno-problematic tradition that we must place Roger MacBride Allen’s The Modular Man. There isn’t much of a plot (dying scientist downloads self in machine, political interests try to convict the robot, courtroom drama ensues), but the novel certainly features a thorough examination of the upcoming blur between humans and cyborgs, along with euthanasia, immortality, wealth hoarding and other such philosophical trifles.

Fortunately, The Modular Man is explicit in what it tries to do. Fourth in the short-lived “The Next Wave” didactic SF series (published in the early nineties by Bantam Spectra), the book comes packaged with an after-word on “Intelligent Robots” written by none other than Isaac Asimov. It’s a good piece, though the novel naturally offers most of the same ideas in a more entertaining (albeit longer) fashion.

What MacBride Allen sets up in his narrative is nothing else but an excuse to explore the legal nuts-and-bolt issues that might one day surround the artificial enhancements of humans. The Modular Man isn’t set particularly far in the future, and the writing style of the novel is much closer to legal thrillers than to more stereotypical SF. There’s certainly a lot of reasonable-sounding realism throughout the book, even though there may be too many issues to untangle simultaneously. But that’s what happens when all of your subplots relate to your central theme.

As fiction, The Modular Man isn’t much of a show-stopper. The characters are serviceable, but their places in the narrative are clearly delimited. (And yet… and yet… you’d be surprised at how moving some passages of the book are.) The plotting all leads up to the predictable Big Courtroom Victory, though there are a few twists here and there. The writing style is brisk and businesslike.

But as idea-fiction, The Modular Man is nearly exemplary. Ever chapter raises and interesting question or two, and even offers sort of a proposed solution, or at least a path worth exploring. There’s a definite pleasure in peeking in the future in that fashion; barring significant progress in nanotech, the increased reliance on artificial body parts is inevitable… and so will be the legal issues surrounding extended life-spans, artificial minds, non-humanoid bodies and such. So why don’t to get a conceptual head-start on everyone else and start studying tomorrow’s headlines now?

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