Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
In an alternate 1960s Los Angeles, Raymond Electromatic is the last robot in the United States. All other robots were deactivated because they took away peoples’ jobs, but as an experimental (and expensive) prototype, Raymond remained operational in part because he is imprinted with the personality template of his creator. Assisting Raymond is a room-sized supercomputer named Ada who helps Raymond with both his jobs. On the one hand, Raymond is a private detective, specializing in finding missing persons through his relentless investigation. On the other, he is also a nearly indestructible killer-for-hire. The reason Raymond needs Ada—aside from her wealth of data and contacts—is that Raymond’s magnetic memory tape only lasts 24 hours. Every day he needs to return to Ada who extracts and downloads his memory and relays it back to him once he’s switched on again.
Into the robot detective’s office walks a young woman with a bag of gold bars and a request that Raymond tracks down and kills a famous movie star named Charles David who has disappeared before the nationwide release of his latest film, Red Lucky. What seems like routine work for both his professions becomes convoluted by not only Raymond’s growing unease about what Ada may or may not be telling him but also the discovery that the Hollywood studio system has been seeded with Soviet double agents who are nearing completion of a long-term espionage goal.
The novel is interesting from a psychoanalytical standpoint, allowing that such a perspective can be taken on intelligent machines. Raymond essentially has his id, superego, and ego in three distinct parts: Professor Thornton’s mental template, Ada, and Raymond himself. Thornton’s subconscious influences are manifest in Raymond’s personality and compulsion to perform human behaviors that make no sense in a robot such as laughing, stretching when he powers on, clearing his throat, making aesthetic judgments about wallpaper, and saying things like “I frowned on the inside” (30, 91, 94, 116, 120). Raymond is consciously aware that these echoes from Thornton have no function, but they all undergird who he is as an individual, and he describes “not all of them were memories exactly. But impressions, ideas, notions, that were vague and smoky” (96). The imagery is as good as any to sketch the murky subsurface of the human mind. Ada spends time giving commands and reworking Raymond’s programming in an attempt to make him more compliant (55). She is a strong, directional force, attempting to control his behavior to fit with their social programming, which again, seems like an apt metaphor for the workings of the superego. Raymond is aware of Ada’s influence but can only do so much in an attempt to subvert her. His memory tape cannot be wiped completely clean, so he has these fragmentary collections of his past that “were afterimages, really—flashes, I called them—of people places and jobs” (56). Raymond himself, the conscious construct, functions as the ego, present and active in the world, attempting to manage and make sense of not only what goes on around him but also the conflicting drives within himself.
Raymond’s humanity expresses itself in his imagination. Though Ada is an immobile supercomputer, he is constantly thinking of her as a person such as when he says she “hissed like a middle-aged woman rocking back in an office chair with the late afternoon sun coming in through the blinds behind her might hiss” (28). Frequently he says things of himself like “I pursed my lips, or at least it felt like I did. It didn’t matter because I don’t have lips” or “I frowned on the inside” (72, 145). The point being that Raymond’s thoughts and emotions are real even if he’s incapable of many basic, human modes of expression.
For some readers, the plot may come across as convoluted as is adds international espionage and science-fiction trappings on top of the West Coast noir mystery that acts as the basis of the story’s action. Additionally, Raymond’s 24-hour memory can come across as an unnecessary conceit because it resets the protagonist, rewinding plot progress. Other readers, however, may enjoy this aspect as it introduces plenty of dramatic irony and will make some readers recall Christopher Nolan’s Memento and the way memory had an effect on the protagonist and the actions he took. On another note, early in the novel, the concept of antirobot prejudice is introduced, but there is little that hinders Raymond socially. Some of this could be explained by Raymond’s being the only remaining robot and the passage of time, but having to deal with that prejudice would have added another layer of tension to the novel and not one that the protagonist could easily overcome.
Trouble Is Someone’s Business, Maybe Mine
Made to Kill is a fun and exciting piece of fiction that appeals to readers of hardboiled detective stories and old school science fiction in the vein of Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick. The author openly acknowledges his debts to and influences by the mystery author Raymond Chandler. Similar to Daniel Polansky’s Low Town series, Christopher has found a way to synthesize two genres into an interesting and experimental hybrid that is well worth a look.
Christopher, Adam. Made to Kill. Tor, 2015.
© 2016 Seth Tomko