This review is part of my judging effort for SPSFC2. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
Alright, we’re moving on to I, Cunningham, by Benoit Goudreault-Emond. Can’t stop, won’t stop. The big old SPSFC clock is ticking.
I was charmed by the Asimov homage in the title and this book did not disappoint – it was a worthy love letter to the great old monsters of science fiction, and was a simple yet suitably dizzying read. And it had footnotes!
Now, I have some kinks when it comes to reading. I love a good infodump, which plenty of readers and authors and would-be how-to gurus say is a no-no. I also enjoy footnotes, whether they are Pratchettesque asides or full-blown Weis-Hickmanian essays in appendix form. When I opened this book to find a self-effacing pre-emptive apology for the over-explaining, the references, and the footnotes to come, I felt a mingling of anticipation and trepidation. Antrepidation, if you will.
And okay. I’m a pretty niche reader so take my gleeful approval with a planetoid of salt. And some of the footnotes were a bit over-explainy even for me. We know what EVA stands for and if we don’t, let people learn some things for themselves. But overall I loved the narrator voice in this, and there is no way to satisfy my appetite for infodumps. I will devour infodumps of a magnitude 1990s Tor Publishing would balk at, and then look around as if to say “what, no more dumps?”
Gordon Cunningham, an ordinary citizen of 22nd century Earth, died in an unfortunate accident.
Except he didn’t die. Not really.
Instead, he woke up stuck inside a robot. In the 29th century. Thirteen light-years from home. In a space station. Which is orbiting a planet that was meant to be a new home for the colonists. Unfortunately, everything went wrong.
We open on a strange yet engaging little action sequence, featuring characters with pointy ears and ordinal surnames attempting to get through a space-station-shuttle-jump-type scenario. These are “Alts”, as opposed to the “Stocks” that are regular humans, and immediately lets us know where we are (space), when we are (the future) and what’s going on (future space shit). Welcome to Demeter.
Our fish out of water outsider protagonist is then introduced in – well, as you see in the little bit of blurb I quoted, a jarring and entertaining way. Gordon Cunningham, regular 22nd-Century guy, suddenly finds himself in the avatar of a robot on a space station above the planet Wolf 1061 in the 29th Century. And the story unfolds from there.
I think the story could have leaned more into the concept of Cunningham being a man out of time, a time traveller of sorts figuring out the Eloi-Morlock dynamic of the Demeter branch of the human race. It would have given us more opportunity to examine the 22nd Century, which is still the future to us readers (thus setting it aside a bit from the usual time-travel narrative). However, that wasn’t what this story was ultimately about, for better or worse. Instead it is sort of … narrated from the 21st Century perspective, about the 22nd Century, as well as the 29th. Which was kind of clumsy at times but I see what the ultimate storytelling goal was there.
The role Cunningham is assigned and the mission he was sent on is weirdly open and unexplained for quite a long time too. The station leadership and the AI (named Station) just sort of let him wander around and push buttons, which struck me as odd. There is some lampshading about why Station didn’t do anything about the deteriorating situation before Cunningham’s “arrival”, but it still didn’t really answer the question. Surely Station could have found someone to help, some other approach. Oh well.
Throughout the ensuing culture-shock and sci-fi espionage sequences, Cunningham has strange bouts of “sleepiness” during which he has dreams. These are fascinating, because while it is immediately clear what is happening during these scenes, they continue to unfold and contextualise while Cunningham himself is coming to terms with a situation that’s complex enough on its face. Really nicely done.
The story also involved a little switching between first- and third-person narrative (literally “I, Cunningham” in some sections and then just “Cunningham” in others). I found it a bit disorienting (let’s be generous and say that was by design, so that’s on me but it still didn’t really work for me) and unnecessary, but sure, it kind of worked.
All in all, I really enjoyed this and only have minor personal quibbles. Things like:
- There are some small editorial and language issues, things like “She just washed her hands with us” (should have been “washed her hands of us”)
- 63% into the story and only now Cunningham suddenly twigs that this whole human upload thing isn’t normal? It also took him way too long to figure out (and he still had to be told by Station, and he was outraged) the truth about his “death” in his 30s
- The final act’s series of explanations seemed a little overcomplicated and had too many moving tech-parts, but I’m inclined to forgive it. The idea of true AI and human hybridisation is interesting, and since my only complaint is that it doesn’t fit into my conception of sci-fi AIs, it’s not really a valid complaint
So let’s take a quick look at the meters. Like Goudreault-Emond says himself:
Content warning: the book presents only minimal violence and no sexual content. That said, the main character does use four letter swear words when life throws him a curve ball. Please bear with Mr. Cunningham; to say his day starts on the wrong foot is quite the understatement.
As Goudreault-Emond says, there’s no sex. A little bit of male gaze and boobies-and-booty description, but nothing too troubling. And Cunningham is pretty self-aware about it (no pun intended). I give this one a Bicentennial Man out of a possible Bi Centennial Man.
Again, there’s nothing much. There’s action, some fight scenes and a whole lot of assorted sci-fi danger (Demeter is a rough place), but no gore. Half a flesh-gobbet out of a possible five.
And there’s not even much WTF, although the whole issue of human / AI symbiosis and parallel evolution is interesting, and the final chapters really blow things open and make for a very compelling backdrop for the past and future of the Demeter civilisation. Still, I’m only getting negligible WTF readings. I, Cunningham gets a mildly-disfigured dude with a vape pen out of a possible Guild Navigator on the WTF-o-meter.
My Final Verdict
Three and a half stars, which I will bump up to four for the Amazon / Goodreads scale because this sort of storytelling might not be for everyone, but it’s for me and this is my review.