Soft Robots and Hard Questions: Activation Degradation by Marina J. Lostetter

Posted 10th September 2021 by Sia in Queer Lit, Reviews, Sci-Fi Reviews / 0 Comments

Activation Degradation by Marina J. Lostetter
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Nonbinary MC, secondary M/M or mlm, secondary intersex character
Published on: 28th September 2021
ISBN: 0062895745

The Murderbot Diaries makes first contact in this new, futuristic, standalone novel exploring sentience and artificial intelligence through the lenses of conflicted robot hero Unit Four, from Marina Lostetter, critically acclaimed author of Noumenon, Noumenon Infinity, and Noumenon Ultra.

When Unit Four—a biological soft robot built and stored high above the Jovian atmosphere—is activated for the first time, it’s in crisis mode. Aliens are attacking the Helium-3 mine it was created to oversee, and now its sole purpose is to defend Earth’s largest energy resource from the invaders in ship-to-ship combat.

But something’s wrong. Unit Four doesn’t feel quite right.

There are files in its databanks it can’t account for, unusual chemical combinations roaring through its pipes, and the primers it possesses on the aliens are suspiciously sparse. The robot is under orders to seek and destroy. That’s all it knows.

According to its handler, that’s all it needs to know.

Determined to fulfill its directives, Unit Four launches its ship and goes on the attack, but it has no idea it’s about to get caught in a downward spiral of misinformation, reprograming, and interstellar conflict.

Most robots are simple tools. Unit Four is well on its way to becoming something more....

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.


~how responsible are we for our ancestors’ mistakes?
~defining ‘alien’ is not nearly as easy as you think
~you don’t get to choose anyone else’s pronouns
~or their family
~magic bees and crystal alien flowers FTW

I’ve been braving more sci fi these days than I used to, and after falling completely in love with Lostetter’s The Helm of Midnight earlier this year (which is fantasy, and you can read my review of it here) I really wanted to check out Activation Degradation.

It was a little bit of a risk, but it paid off!

Although the first thing you need to know is: this is not Murderbot, and it really isn’t anything like Murderbot. Murderbot works in large part because of its main character, that character’s voice, and the general vibe of being So Done with everything (but also secretly being a sweetie). I think it’s very possible to love Murderbot and Activation Degradation (I do) but it’s not because the two are much alike. They both feature cyborgs/organic robots. That’s it. In every other respect they’re completely different. If you’re picking this up because you’re looking for a story like Murderbot, I don’t think this is the book for you.

It’s very hard to talk about what this book is like, and who it’s for, without going into major spoiler territory. Activation Degradation is one of those stories that begins with one premise or set-up – and then rips the carpet out from under you, revealing a completely different story. I don’t know if other readers will see the first big twist coming – I almost never see twists coming, no matter how predictable, so I’m not the best judge of whether they’re genuinely surprising or not – but I didn’t, and I immediately loved what was revealed and how drastically that changed the situation I thought I was reading about.

And the first big twist is only the first big twist. Lostetter upends the gameboard several times over the course of the book; every time I became certain that, okay, now I knew what was going on – that was when another curtain would be whipped back, revealing something completely new that dramatically altered the stakes and who I was supposed to be rooting for. Not so often that I was constantly getting whiplash or anything – but more than enough to keep me on my toes, trusting nothing until the very last pages.

And I’m pretty sure that was intentional; I think it’s a way to help the reader get inside Unit 4’s head. Because it’s experiencing those twists and turns, those upending-of-everything revelations right alongside the reader. We’re not sure who or what to trust any more than it is. Which squarely puts the reader on Unit 4’s side – it’s impossible not to empathise with it when we’re in the exact same boat it’s in.

Activation Degradation starts with a bang and doesn’t really stop; even the moments that seem quieter or less packed with action involve world-changing realisations and decisions going on inside Unit 4. It’s not that the action pauses, so much as that sometimes it’s external – explosions and sirens blaring and aliens attacking the station – and the rest of the time it’s internal – new discoveries and their implications setting off cascading realisations that the world, and even Unit 4 itself, is not as it thought it was.

But what the hell can I tell you without spoilers??? I can tell you that this is very much a book about truth, and how it looks different from different angles; how two truths can contradict and yet both still be true. It’s enormously concerned with agency, and consent, and how informed consent is the only kind that counts. It’s about prejudice and the responsibility we bear for our ancestors’ mistakes and evils – do we, don’t we, how much? It’s about the greater good, and whether it’s acceptable to sacrifice anyone at all for it. It’s about complicity, both thoughtless and intentional. It’s about what makes a person a person, what makes a family, what you’ll give or do to keep that family safe.

It doesn’t have the comedy factor that Murderbot does, but it’s clever and tricksy and surprisingly deep. I enjoyed it a lot, and if you’re looking for sci fi that keeps you guessing until the very end, this is it!

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