Body Electric by Susan Squires
(Leisure, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8439-5036-6
Susan Squires seems to lose control of her story at times in Body Electric, but considering it’s only her third novel, this ambitious sci-fi romance is worth a look. Squires obviously is not afraid to take chances, and in a day where so many authors and publishers are playing it safe, she deserves a lot of credit. After all, as Robert Browning once said, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

You could try to claim that Bob McIntire, the CEO of Visimorph Corporation, is not a stand-in for Bill Gates, but considering that he is accused of “peddling an inferior, unstable product that’s hard to use” and “cornering the market by stealing the look and feel of the operating system from his competitor” - well, my guess is that Susan Squires writes on a Macintosh. Anyway, Victoria Barnhardt, hacker extraordinaire, was paroled from a prison term and allowed to work at Visimorph because McIntire recognized her talents. But “Vic” ignores her assigned tasks in favor of her own project - the development of a fully-functional artificial intelligence specimen. Tapping into Visimorph’s huge power sources, she succeeds beyond her wildest dreams - or is it nightmares? Her creation, Jodie, is capable of thinking and acting independently. It even appears to have emotions. But, although Vic intended Jodie to be the prototype for a strong, self-confident woman - the antithesis of herself - Jodie informs Vic that he is decisively male, not female.

Jodie’s programs are so complex and massive that they must be spread out over several different sites. This fragmentation appears to be eroding Jodie’s functionality. The only answer may be to centralize his operations - into a human body. But what kind of host can they find for Jodie, and what will be the impact of combining his program with living body cells? There’s little time to think about the implications of this shocking proposal. McIntire and his henchmen know that Vic is up to something, and she must race against time to protect her work so the ambitious CEO won’t claim Jodie for his own greedy, immoral purposes. And the lonely, cynical Vic, who usually finds release only in anonymous sexual encounters, realizes that she is falling in love with someone who is both more and less than human.

Squires’ plot brings up a multitude of philosophical issues for the reader, including what makes a being “human” and how personality is determined. Is Vic falling in love with something she created - her favorite books, not coincidentally, include Frankenstein and Pygmalion - or an independent spirit who has acquired a soul from some inexplicable source? And by calling her heroine “Vic” but her hero “Jodie,” is Squires having a little gender-bending fun? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that when a book evinces more of a reaction from me than “that’s nice, another happy ending,” it is a positive sign. Also, I couldn’t predict how Vic and Jodie were going to resolve their dilemma (let’s face it, I didn’t understand a lot of what Vic was talking about with neural nets and algorhythms, but I could get the general idea). This inventiveness, along with a gripping, suspenseful climax, elevated the story to something special.

But while the novel’s plotting was exceedingly clever, Squires’ writing style is still in a developmental phase. Her narrative is frequently flat and she has yet to develop a distinctive voice. It was too easy to put the book down, especially in the first half, because her weak writing failed to pull me into the story.

The novel’s characters are problematic at times as well. The most animated one, ironically, is Jodie the AI. His personality leaps off the page, even when he is nothing more than a string of words on a computer screen. Once he “adopts” a human body, he is even more irresistible - gallant, resourceful, but still unsure of himself as he slowly learns how to be a human being. It’s easy to see how Vic could fall for him. But it’s harder to understand why Jodie would return the affection. Bitter and prickly, Vic keeps everyone at a distance, including the reader. Her transformation from “master of robotic sex” to a woman who isn’t afraid to express her emotions doesn’t make enough of an impression because she remains somewhat of a cipher. The secondary characters, primarily Visimorph employees, (the power-hungry CEO, the conflicted yes-man) occasionally rise above caricature, but the sections written from their point of view lack pizzazz.

In addition to accepting the sci-fi premise, the reader has to suspend disbelief in other ways. The hospital scene in which Jodie enters his host body strains credulity. And how can a brilliant computer mind that is capable of programming cells to regenerate themselves be stymied by the zipper on a pair of Levi’s? Inconsistencies like these ones are hard to ignore.

I wavered between giving Body Electric 3 or 4 hearts, because the book does have some major weaknesses. However, Squires’ willingness to reach for something unique deserves to be applauded, even if perfection does elude her grasp. After releasing a Viking romance, a vampire yarn and a sci-fi saga, it’s hard to predict what this author will do next, but I’ll bet it won’t be anything ordinary.

--Susan Scribner

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