Shorter review: biblical robocalypse
Longer review: Androids in relation to legal rights, emotions, existence, life, etc. have been a feeding ground for science fiction for a long, long time (from the beginning even, if one takes Frankenstein’s monster as an android). Humanity’s human-like creations portrayed as everything from loyal servants to killers en masse, it’s easy to argue that books which delve into questions regarding sentience are the most sophisticated of the sub-genres sprouting from manufactured humanity. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Brian Aldiss’ “SupertoysLast All Summer Long”, and Anne Charnock’s A Calculated Life are just a few of the more intelligent stories examining the humanity of synthetic life. Falling a bit shy of this crowd yet rising above Stephen King’s “Trucks” (short story which inspired Maximum Overdrive), Daniel Wilson’s Robocalypse, and Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust is Robert Silverberg’s 1971 Tower of Glass.
It’s the 23rd century, and ultra-billionaire Simeon Krug has devised the creation of human-like androids. Biologically vat-produced to varying degrees of sophistication—gamma, beta, alpha, etc., his androids fit into various niches of society, from street cleaner to secretary, government adviser to sex slave. Yet at every outward appearance, they seem to display the same human range of thought and emotion. They are also employed as manual laborers, and Krug has a huge crew erecting a massive glass tower in the Arctic tundra which, when finished, will be used to attempt to communicate with aliens that are believed to be sending messages from across galaxy. The androids building a political platform seeking the same rights as humans, a proverbial powder keg explodes when one of the synthetic beings lobbies Krug and is shot. The Earth is never the same…
Balanced very delicately between cheap and sophisticated science fiction, Tower of Glass checks a lot of boxes the superficial sf crowd are looking for. Android revolutions, interstellar travel, point-to-point instant travel, futuristic tech, android sex, and spy vs spy plotting are major parts of the novel. But there remain ideas beyond par sf. If the glass tower being built and novel’s title are not enough of a hint, then indeed there is a religious/biblical undertone to much of the content. There is no lexical fallout in Silverberg’s world a la the Tower of Babel, but the religion which the androids practice, not to mention the hubris with which (simian--Simeon) Krug promotes his projects, and humanity’s place in the grand pecking order speak to perennial human behavior that transcends robocalyptico.
And therein lies the novel’s main issue. By committing to the middle, neither the cheap or sophisticated side is unpacked enough to deliver the full potential of either. Reading Tower of Glass, readers will be buoyed nicely along by pace and events that bely entertaining sf, but likewise a pace which passes interesting ideas by too quickly. The android religion, Krug’s hubris, android sentience—these and other engaging concepts are skimmed for a tantalizing sip but never dipped into for a full drink. The result is an enjoyable enough novel, but one that could have been expanded upon for deeper effect. For lack of a better summary, Tower of Glass feels like a combination of Silverberg’s 50s adventure work mixed with his later, more literary New Wave material—not a bad combination, just a mixed one.