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Book Review: Stolen Earth

This is the first novel I have read by J.T. Nicholas and for a quick summary, the book hits many of the standard science fiction adventure notes. This book is not quite hard science fiction though it leans in that direction with hints of Star Trek terminology thrown in, like shields and deflectors.

The title is what grabbed me. The idea of stealing a planet of course sets up enough curiosity to flip the book over and check the back cover. As blurbs go it was a mix of the semi standard post apocalyptic prediction that we will destroy our environment, but the second note is what made me give the book a try. AI’s drove humanity off the planet, and we live in fear, with all guns pointed at earth to keep them there.

Now the flap also immediately gives us the statement that a crew makes it to earth, and finds out not everything is what it seems.

Could it be no Ais at all? Peaceful AI’s? Long dead?

Other questions nagged at me enough to pick it up for a read, which included how did we live without earth? The year is not stated on the back cover, so I wanted to know if we lost the planet before or after we had established ourselves on other rocks.

The book answers all of it.

If you are expecting an older fashion science fiction with a slow burn like Arthur C. Clarke or Orson Scott Card, this is not the book for you. This had a feeling more in line with the TV show Firefly, featuring space cowboy vibes.

The book opened weakly with a prologue that you will need to push through. It's exposition, and ultimately not tied directly to the story, but after that it picks up fast enough. A crew will be forced to work together to make it to earth for a payment so staggering they can stop being pirates. While setting up the heist structure the book lets us know the back story.

Mankind set up AI’s to run the militaries of the world. Six of them, called the big six are said to be the USA, China, and the others are left vague. At least one ruled over South America. Russia is implied. In fear we don’t want “unfettered,” AI to escape. True full artificial intelligence. All other forms of AI are banned in the Commonwealth, so that mistakes are not repeated. The Commonwealth is painted as fairly totalitarian, and while not an unpleasant place, certainly not a pleasant place to live. Then again, we are locked into perspectives of people who live on the fringe of that society, as thieves and freelancers.

We learn through the story some members of the crew are not who they seem, working for the commonwealth, or are ex-Commonwealth scientists itching to get their hands on a live AI, and at least see what they became.

Through hijinks, a touch or two of serendipity and author fiat, they make it to earth.

I won’t lie, I was fully expecting the AI to be cuddly, not at all violent, and the entire thing to be a mistake, or a lie as the story twist. I would have been disappointed. Fear not, these AI's meant business. On landing they are attacked within minutes by swarms of nanobots, against which they have precisely no hope of survival. They flee, lose the fight are put into submission from air toxic to life and ultimately wake up after being rescued by other humans.

People have survived and adapted to life on the planet. Without going into the nitty gritty, the ideas are actually pretty high science fiction. Everyone one the planet has nanobots in them which enable them to survive the environmental attacking nanobots, and each region of earth has an AI which is looking after it.

At this point the book breaks off into a completely new storyline. The notion of the heist was a McGuffin to get them to the planet, so more of the tale can actually start. They meet an AI, and here the author runs into the same problem any writer will when dealing with characters who are smarter than us. How on earth do you write them? Whether it’s a 1000-year-old person, or an artificial intelligence that has been running non stop for a hundred years perfecting whatever it wants, how can we possibly portray it? His approach is generally minimalist.

We do not hear much from the AI’s perspective, and the interactions are kept fairly short. They are fighting one another, and have been since humanity left, but they don’t want to anymore. They were never “unfettered,” AI. They were slaves to a program which required them to fight to the very bitter end, but since nobody was left from the military to tell any of them to stand down, they continue on their destructive path. They are asking permission to be set free to do whatever they want… Specifically stop fighting.

Of course, this paints the conundrum, what would an infinitely amazing intelligence with all the weapons in the world do with that freedom? What would the three remaining AI’s do collectively now that a hundred-year war is finished? Humanity had always pointed every weapon at the planet, but their reason was wrong. What if they suddenly found out it was true?

This is the question which preoccupies the last third or so of the novel and it is a question worth exploring. The tone and the focus of the book doesn’t give us much to go on from the AI’s perspective, I think intended by the author to leave all of the arguments to the people, who are split on the decision. The AI's promise them “We are nice, honest.”

I won't spoil the entire ending, but I will say it was worth the read. The novel is a quick, and all things considered, light read. Perhaps fun is the best way to explain it, though I felt a lot of possibility was left on the table. If you’re looking for a book to read on the train, or a flight, this is the kind of book to grab.

Rating: 3.2 / 5.0

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