Quick Review: AN UNNATURAL LIFE by Erin K. Wagner (Tor.com)

WagnerEK-AnUnnaturalLifeAn interplanetary tale of identity and responsibility.

The cybernetic organism known as 812-3 is in prison, convicted of murdering a human worker but he claims that he did not do it. With the evidence stacked against him, his lawyer, Aiya Ritsehrer, must determine grounds for an appeal and uncover the true facts of the case.

But with artificial life-forms having only recently been awarded legal rights on Earth, the military complex on Europa is resistant to the implementation of these same rights on the Jovian moon.

Aiya must battle against her own prejudices and that of her new paymasters, to secure a fair trial for her charge, while navigating her own interpersonal drama, before it’s too late.

Who enjoys the full protections of the law? Can an AI have a jury of its peers, if no AIs are represented? Can humans make objective choices if they need to decide the fate of an artificial being? All these and more are the questions asked by Wagner’s interesting novella.

In An Unnatural Life, Wagner gives readers a brief, tightly-written examination of how the introduction of AIs might affect our justice system. Aiya takes on the case of 812-3, who has been found guilty of murder. An AI, he wants to appeal because there were none of his peers (i.e., fellow AIs) on his jury. As Aiya gets to know him, she comes to learn what really happened. Unfortunately, I can’t really go into it much more without spoiling the whole novel… Which makes reviewing An Unnatural Life rather tricky.

Wagner’s writing is very good throughout. The characters feel real, even if we don’t really have time to get to know them particularly well. There’s a fair amount left unsaid and unshown, but the story packs a decent punch at the end.

I enjoyed the questions the novella asks, and the realistic issues it suggests. Some of the questions are clear allusions to contemporary questions about who is protected by the law, and the fact that everyone should enjoy the same protections, regardless of who or what they are. In addition, there are questions related directly to the AIs. How much free will can AIs actually have? How much freedom do we humans have to control them, even if they supposedly have free will? Should human rights supersede theirs, even if humans are in the wrong? If free will can be usurped, who is responsible for the action?

“We make them. We manufacture them. We should control them. We can’t have it both ways. Give them human rights and still treat them like slaves.”

“So better we strip the rights?”

Peri’s back trembles. She is angry or she is crying. Or both. “Either they’re machines or we’re monsters.”

I would have preferred it if the book had been a little bit longer. I would have liked to get to know the characters and settings a bit more. The emotional payoff at the end was, I think, blunted by the slim length of the story. It’s a tricky preference, though, as I recognize that keeping it short gave the revelations a bit more punch — although, even here, some things felt skated over. The short snippets of information related to events elsewhere seemed disconnected from the main events (unless I missed something), which made me wonder why they were included.

Overall, An Unnatural Life is a very interesting and engaging novella. It poses interesting questions, but doesn’t suggest there are easy answers. I’m certainly looking forward to reading more by the author in the future.



Erin K. Wagner’s An Unnatural Life is due to be published by Tor.com in North America and in the UK, on September 15th, 2020.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter
Review copy received via NetGalley

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