Isaac Asimov had Three Laws of Robotics:
1. A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Asimov’s laws are sourly tested in Colin O’Sullivan’s new novel, The Dark Manual. The author, Winner of the Prix Mystère de la critique 2018, just gets better with each book, and with this, his third, he is becoming one of the finest storytellers out there. His prose keeps one glued to the page, with delightful concentration.
Colin O’Sullivan does not write a bad line. His characters become a part of the reader as they turn the pages, and they dwell in the mind between reads. I found myself setting the book down, two or three times, but not able to leave it until I picked it up again, and read some more. Colin O’Sullivan’s writing style reminds me so of jazz, with its one-word, then two-word, then three-word sentences. Bop, bop, bop-bop, until you realize you have read a paragraph, then onto a new riff. Lyrical, powerful, humorous, poetic, emotional. He is a lyrical master of the written word. There are sections of the book that are heartbreaking, in their emotional and physical sense of loss, and moments of humor, surprise, suspense, pure sudden horror, and stark naked joy.
Susie Sakamoto, came from Ireland, to live in Japan with her husband, Masa, who designed and built “homebots,” domestic robots. Their primary role: clean the home, cook, make drinks, tend to the owner, and stand still in the corner when turned off for the night.
With their little boy, Zen, Masa and Susie have a happy life, until the day when Susie bids goodbye to her son and husband at the airport, where they are setting off on a trip to South Korea. A trip that becomes a tragedy when an errant missile launched from North Korea causes the plane they are on to break apart, its pieces and bodies of those on board falling into the sea. Her dear husband and darling son, suddenly gone. Their bodies never recovered.
Susie now spends her days in a deep depression, going over the what-ifs, coming to hate the homebot that lives with her, and staying drunk most of the time. Appearing at work, where she is a reporter, occasionally, but contemplating suicide, and spending nights in a bar getting wasted and mourning the tremendous loss she has suffered. A drunken Irishwoman in Japan, with little reason to get up in the morning, except to order the home robot to bring her another drink, while outside, in the trees, the owls are gathering, as if something was amiss.
At the bar she hangs out at each night, Susie becomes somewhat friendly with the ultra free spirit and flamboyant Mixxy Makanea, a Japanese woman who speaks English, and pretty much does what she wants, when she wants, and with whomever she wants. When Mixxy struts into a bar, all heads turn. Green streaked hair, fishnet stockings, glossy lips, and just a touch of white powder under her nostrils, she is ready to steal the evening. Mixxy is one of the great characters from the author. With her flash flamboyance and pizzazz, she colors the novel with her profane antics, and so-what attitude. Mixxy also feels the presence of the owls. Knows they are in the trees. Watching.
Susie continues to struggle with whether to live or die and blacken it all out once and for all. Her anguish palpable. Her loss profound. Her hatred for the annoying domestic robot growing each day. Then she begins to hear about the Dark Manual, a legendary means to shut off all the machines, that might or might not exist. Susie starts thinking that if she could find it, she could shut the damn thing off. Shut them all off. If she gets Mixxy to help her, could they find it? Did her husband write it? Is it close by, within her reach?
Meanwhile the homebot waits. All the homebots wait. Lights flashing on and off. Eerie sounds emitting from where there mouth would be. Do they come into the bedroom at night to watch the sleeper? Are they capable of harm? If Susie and Mixxy find the Dark Manual, will the machines know, and try to stop them from shutting them down? Can they think? Can they communicate with other homebots? Are they evil?
Worst of all, can they kill?
Meanwhile, outside, more owls gather in the trees, and now also the crows. They too gather and caw in the trees and rooftops. More and more of them. Watching. Waiting.
–Marvin Minkler of Modern First Editions