Guest Review: The Nero Protocol by Victoria Zagar

Ario six-four-nine-one is an obsolete synth gigolo—especially when his latest trick proves to be his last in a brutal and horrifying way. But he's only a synth, it's not like he can really think and feel. No one will notice one more out of date synth tossed in the garbage.

Except for Elias, homeless and lonely because he's not what his father—or the world—wants him to be, haunted by a tragedy for which he cannot forgive himself. When he finds a battered, broken, long-discontinued synth in a dumpster, he decides to repair the poor thing despite all the reasons he shouldn't.

Then all those reasons come crashing down, and in order to save each other from a world that doesn't want either of them, Elias and Ario will have to sacrifice everything they hold dear: freedom, safety, and even themselves.

Warning: contains graphic depictions of violence and sexual violence.

Well this was disappointing… and that’s almost worse than being outright bad. I don’t even think I’d call this a romance.

Chapter One and the first half of chapter Two had me salivating imagining all sorts of delicious and enticing scenarios. The question of what makes us “human” is one that I like to ponder when I’m feeling particularly deep but I’m an aspiring amateur at any coherent thesis on the matter. Anyone who has an even cursory interest in the subject need only read “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” by Philip K. Dick which is the basis for Blade Runner, a movie everyone should watch for a hundred thousand reasons. One of them is that it teases out the very nature of humanity dressed in an epically beautiful piece of cinematic futurology. Also watch “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” from the late Stanley Kubrick via Steven Spielberg which will have you in blubbering tears and hating humanity and for bonus content “The Terminator” and subsequent entries in the franchise won’t steer you wrong.

Why do I recommend movies in a book review? Because you’ll save yourself some grief and I suspect quite firmly that the author took these and others as inspiration.

The book starts off with Ario, a male gigolo synth, who has long been used by his owner as a prostitute, in what turns out to be his last fateful assignation with a client. Things go badly and Ario is thrown out as trash. In chapter Two, Elias, a homeless tech genius who has turned tricks to survive on the streets, finds Ario and goes about fixing him. It turns out that Ario is no run-of-the-mill synth but rather a very high end one who has also been “modified”. I won’t get further into the plot but I’ll say that these first two chapters are the best thing here. What could be a great story of human-synth life and if you’re ambitious also a bit of taboo human-synth love is set in motion and then the wheels come off as in no follow through.

Elias’ character vacillates between being a guy who ended up on the streets due to his unwavering fight for “synth rights” to a whining teenage boy pining for his lost love. Also I’m confused. When was he doing all this “fighting in the streets”? While homeless? Plausible, except we are told this all came before street life. So he was a teenage warrior? Is this “The Hunger Games”? It also turns out that Elias is some kind of savant who has an uncanny affinity with synths which makes him special and the target of many. Quite frankly I found him annoying, sanctimonious, and at times selfish. Can’t say more ‘cause spoilers.

Ario of course is this idealized thing of beauty, intelligence, and perfection and I had no gripe with him. He was made that way. He was consistent and logical in his progression. I think the author should’ve let him go further. He was by far the most interesting character.

And so we come to the “romance” in this book. There is none but what we are told. Elias finds Ario, fixes him up and they spend about a day together during which there is a perfunctory sex scene which I could’ve done without because it brings nothing to the table. Immediately after we have a four year separation and then a reunion day which is an action and suspense packed episode of (pick any mid level show you like) in which everything gets resolved. The end.

What annoyed me about this book is that it’s sprinkled throughout with some very intriguing issues which are worth exploring, the world building isn’t awful, and the story has potential but is ultimately hijacked by a teen’s Tumblr blog. Lost potential is always worse. This should’ve been a first draft from which to work out a more polished and consistent book.

Too bad.

Recommended if you’ve read virtually nothing else related to A.I. and are pretty forgiving of wildly different tones within one story.

A review copy was provided.

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