Cover image of "Activation Degradation," a novel about biomechanical robots and aliens

AMS Unit Four wakes fresh from the reconstitution station to the sound of emergency alarms. Aliens are attacking the energy mine in Jovian space that supplies a third of Earth’s energy needs. Forced to rush immediately into action, it soon finds itself confronted with a terrible dilemma. One of its three colleagues, identical biomechanical robots, Unit Two has been grievously wounded. Unit Four is forced to end its life and deposit its remains in the tank for reconstitution. There’s no choice. Unit Four’s handler, stationed on Earth, has ordered the murder. And then the handler orders it to clamber into a small vessel called a boat and rush off to attack the alien spaceship hundreds of kilometers away. Thus begins Marina Lofstetter’s intriguing First Contact story, Activation Degradation.

Biomechanical robots to turn back the invading aliens

Like the boat it pilots to meet the aliens, Unit Four is genetically engineered—”a unified, ultra-responsive [robotic entity] of nerve and muscle grown atop a breathing chassis.” For the four robots on the platform, “time was short, mostly due to the extreme levels of radiation constantly wafting away from Jupiter. . . Lifetime exposure levels were usually reached somewhere between seven hundred and twenty hours and two thousand, one hundred and sixty hours.” Then each robot must return to the reconstitution tank, which recycles its flesh and metal components at the molecular level. It then reemerges whole again, with its operative memories restored.

Activation Degradation by Marina J. Lofstetter (2021) 305 pages ★★★★★

Image of "advanced robots" today, a great contrast to the biomechanical robots in this novel
The robots in this novel look nothing whatsoever like this “advanced robot” from the early 21st century. Image: New York Post

A suspenseful story full of surprises

Unit Four sets out in hopes of destroying the enemy ship. Its boat is equipped with fearsome weapons, and its handler on Earth had made clear that it is capable of either obliterating the alien vessel or at least chasing it away from the energy mine. But that’s not how it goes in Activation Degradation. The two ships meet in a furious battle in the space above Jupiter’s surface—and both emerge badly damaged. Unit Four then finds itself taken into the alien ship . . . only to encounter one surprise after another in a cascade of disorienting experiences. Lofstetter’s story is both suspenseful and moving, and it raises fundamental questions about life and truth.

About the author

Image of Marina Lofstetter, author of this novel about biomechanical robots and aliens

Marina Lofstetter‘s publisher, Macmillan, notes that she “is [also] the author of Noumenon and Noumenon: InfinityThe Helm of Midnight was her first foray into fantasy. Originally from Oregon, she now resides in Arkansas with her husband, Alex. When not writing or drawing she can often be found reading spec-fic, or playing it (she enjoys a good zombie-themed board game now and again). And she does it all while globetrotting.” “Spec-fic?” Why can’t people just admit it’s science fiction?

For more reading

I’ve also reviewed the author’s excellent earlier novel, Noumenon (A visionary science fiction novel with hard science at its core).

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