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Book cover art by Alan Ayers.
Review © 2000 by Thomas M. Wagner.

As SF evolves, it's natural that such clichéd SF concepts as the berserk robot story should evolve as well. The Phoenix Code is more than a mere berserk robot story, but it keeps that enjoyably hoary old idea close to its positronic heart as it relates the tale of a girl and her android with cinematic energy and the ease and confidence of a seasoned bestseller. Yes, that does mean there is a potboilerish quality to this tale. But Asaro's gift for creating sympathetic heroes, plus her unwillingness to abandon her hard SF roots, keeps this book skimming along agreeably. Taken as a simple, escapist thriller, it works fine. It's a better than average beach novel, the kind of book you might hand to mundane friends of yours who think Michael Crichton is a cutting-edge SF writer.

Set in 2021, The Phoenix Code doesn't offer anything revolutionary in the plot department. Megan O'Flannery is an up-and-coming hotshot in the realm of AI, mainly in its application to androids, robots designed to replicate humans right down to the pulse of a vein. (Sound familiar? Well, duh.) Given an opportunity to work for MindSim, one of several leading corporations at the forefront of android technology, Megan is put in charge of Ander, an android whose physical resemblance to a human is staggering but whose mental development is little better than that of an autistic child. Megan realizes that Ander's only chance at developing his mind and, most importantly, his own morals and ethics, is to allow him self-awareness. She sets about removing millions of caps on Ander's code placed upon him by his designer, who saw true android sentience as more threatening than comforting.

Tossed into the mix is Dr. Chandrarajan Sundaram (Raj for short). At first an eye-rolling stereotype, he eventually wins us over. He's the reclusive, enigmatic, free-spirited billionaire ultra-mega-supergenius, who also happens to be devilishly attractive, exerting an irresistible animal allure over the reserved (though by no means hopelessly geekettish) Megan. He's a fantasy guy straight out of a romance novel, but hey, that's okay. I found it amusing, probably in exactly the same way women readers snicker over the idealized fantasy objects that pass for women in sword and sorcery novels.

Anyway, Raj is sought by every company in the universe for his expertise. When he turns up at MindSim, things really hit the fan. Ander, who has been developing with stupefying speed, views Raj with undisguised suspicion and loathing, and it even appears that he sees Raj as a romantic rival for Megan! (Asaro's androids, intriguingly, can have sex and reproduce. Talk about sexual objectification!) Things quickly go from bad to worse to "oh shit," as Ander suddenly seems to go completely psycho, kidnapping both Megan and Raj and taking them on a breathless chase through the desert southwest as he pursues something he calls the Phoenix Code. We get hints that a rival company has successfully developed androids as good as or better than Ander himself.

Asaro keeps all of this moving swiftly enough that you don't really mind that it's all more than a bit confusing at first. After all, labyrinthine stories involving Big Secrets aren't really supposed to be all that coherent, as any X-Files fan can tell you. Asaro's tougher job, which she handles with mixed success, is the emotional roller coaster ride she takes us on regarding the characters. Ander goes nuts so quickly you don't really have time to get to like him first. Then it becomes evident that what Asaro's doing is trying to get across Ander's confusion as he is dealing with developmental problems similar to adolescence. Still, it doesn't exactly lessen the discomfort when Ander comes within seconds of violently raping Megan in a motel room. Asaro seems to be daring us to quit reading the book altogether at times, and some readers might just take her up on the dare. Another scene set in a Las Vegas casino comes off as preposterously contrived, with dumb dialogue that would make even a James Bond screenwriter cringe. But the Vegas sequence does contain the novel's funniest satirical jab. (Guess where Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez are performing in their middle age?)

But if you stick with it, you'll find a trio of characters who engage you, and a story that satisfies on a level of action-packed entertainment, if nothing deeper. True, the whole philosophical issue of what to do if our machines become better, smarter, and faster than we are is two days older than Moses. And Asaro isn't the first writer to address issues of reconciling knowledge and science with the vagaries of the human heart. But she does so with honesty and conviction, without leaving us with any sort of trite greeting-card answer. Another question the novel floats throughout its length — is there Something Up with Raj? — is answered in a fashion not quite as predictable as you might fear, and it all dovetails nicely into Asaro's themes of what truly makes us human. In all, a decent effort, not for all tastes.