In “The Preserve” by Ariel S. Winter, a police chief is racing to solve a murder that occurs in his town in a “preserve” created for humans which specifically excludes robots from its premises. Jesse Laughton lives on the newly-formed preserve with his wife Betty and his daughter Erica.
The setting is fascinating on many levels. The preserve has been created at some unspecified time in the future when a pandemic has decimated the human population. Robots, on the other hand, live and prosper and control the government and many other aspects of life. Winter doesn’t go into specifics about the plague, and it’s mostly referenced peripherally.
But we do learn that the preserve was created to give humans a robot-free place where they could live in closer proximity, thus perhaps allowing their numbers to grow instead of dwindle. Of course, after seeing how wildlife flourishes when humans aren’t around, as we saw during the COVID-19 lockdown, we must wonder whether the planet wouldn’t be better if the human race did die out. But people like Jesse’s wife are determined to repopulate the planet, and she works in a fertility clinic with just that goal in mind.
The pressure is on Jesse to solve this murder quickly. Recent crimes off the preserve include robots dying from a sim card that sets them on fire. The sim cards for the renegade virus that causes this deadly attack seem to be coming from the preserve, and Jesse quickly discovers that the murder victim was a hacker and thus might have been responsible for the robot deaths. The robot-filled government is determined to solve the hacker problem, and they are threatening to invade the preserve if Jesse doesn’t come up with the answers they need. Quickly.
While Jesse feverishly works to put together the clues, we also meet his former partner from the Baltimore PD, a robot named Kir, who is also Jesse’s best friend. And that’s what makes the writing fascinating and thoughtful. While one thinks of robots as emotionless and unfeeling, Kir seems the opposite. In fact, Jesse and Betty don’t seem very affectionate with their daughter, Erica. And while Erica is at the age at which children can be difficult and demanding, why would they have a child if they didn’t want to love and cherish her? And paradoxically, Kir seems to be more patient and kind to Erica than either parent.
There are some very thought-provoking passages in the mystery. At one point, Jesse and Kir briefly share thoughts about whether the robots or the humans are the occupying forces. Have the robots displaced the humans? Well, Jesse feels that is the case, and some wonder if humans were offered the preserve in order to corral the humans together so they could be easier to eradicate or control. Kir points out that while that might be the case, the robots still follow the human rules and system of government. And while the robots have the ability to communicate wordlessly, it’s considered rude to do so, apparently as a nod to human sensibilities.
Altogether, this is a quick but thoughtful read. It would make a great first book in a series, which would allow the author to further develop the characters of Jesse and his wife, Betty, as well as give more background about the pandemic and the decline of the human population. There is much still left to wonder about, and readers would enjoy revisiting this world and learning more about how it came to be.
This review originally posted on Bookreporter.com.
Please note: This review is based on the advanced reader’s copy provided by Atria, the publisher, for review purposes.