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Humans, Bow Down by Patterson & Raymond1 star

Buy from IndieBoundThe cargo cults were an unusual anthropological phenomenon that emerged in the early 20th century, when some indigenous South Pacific island cultures experienced something of a head-on collision with modern, technologically advanced civilization. The most well known examples occurred in the Melanesian islands during and after WW2. Japanese and American military outposts set themselves up on islands whose native populations had only had limited contact with the outside world before, and in some cases, none.

Many natives were especially struck by the way bounty literally fell from the skies, in the form of cargo planes delivering provisions, many of which the occupying armies shared with the natives. Once the war was over and the armies pulled out, it was discovered that the natives were attempting to continue receiving supply drops by imitating the behaviors of the occupying armies. They built runways and even their own control towers, which they would sit in wearing headsets made of wood, as if these were summoning rites that made provisions appear from the sky gods. It was a kind of sympathetic magic, a literal expression of the belief “If you build it, they will come.”

These people weren’t fools, they were just operating from a limited knowledge base, trying to make a system they didn’t understand work for them the way they had seen it work for others. In more recent times, the concept of the cargo cult has been used in a metaphorical sense to explain any situation — for example, pseudoscience — where someone attempts to reproduce a successful outcome in complete ignorance of how such outcomes are properly achieved. So you have creationists seeing legitimate scientific findings presented in museums and their solution is, “Okay, we’ll just build our own museum.”

This long preamble finally brings us to a book like Humans, Bow Down, an attempt at reproducing the success of such YA dystopian adventures as The Hunger Games and Divergent without making the slightest attempt to understand why or how those books worked for their fans. James Patterson is not so much an author as a book packager, who has turned his name into a $100-million-a-year brand by churning out hundreds of generic ghost written novels for people who only read novels they can pick up from Walmart. His metier is typically the crime thriller, but he has allowed his work for hire writers to dip their toes in other genres if those genres have the sales figures to justify the exercise. The success of Harry Potter, for instance, led to his Witch and Wizard series. The problem, of course, is that Patterson doesn’t grasp or even give a damn why those books connect with their readers. He sees merely units sold and wants a piece of that pie.

Humans, Bow Down is cargo cult science fiction. Funny thing, because even The Hunger Games was not an especially good example of science fiction. But it did an exceptional job of zeroing in on the anxieties felt by a generation of young people who were growing up into a world of conflict, inequality and insecurity, a world bequeathed to them by a generation of adults who had broken it and then blamed their kids for all its problems. Patterson and his ghost writer Emily Raymond see only that a story about the oppressed rising up against their oppressors made its author filthy rich. Kind of ironic, that.

So here, we get a simplistic action spectacle with little internal logic, set in a future America where humans built robots to be more human than human, in which said robots decided they didn’t need their creators around anymore, and eradicated most of us in a massive war. Surviving humans can live among the Hu-Bots (lol) if they are Reformed, but most humans live like bedraggled peasant animals on the Reserve, which is spelled with a capital R because if you follow the Dystopian YA Novel Twitter feed, you know that’s how it’s done.

Our human heroine is a girl who once had a name but is now just called Six. She and her guy friend Dubs end up pursued by the evil robot police, led by detective MikkyBo, because Six is in possession of a handheld quantum computer, the existence of which, naturally, poses a dire threat to the entrenched robot overlords who overthrew the human race and rule everything with a literal iron fist. Mikky’s superior is a frothing anti-human bigot named MosesKhan, who says things like “The humans must be persecuted to the fullest extent!” When Mikky helplessly watches Khan order a wholesale slaughter of a bunch of humans, naturally she begins to question her own anti-human programming. Oh, a character is faced with the realization that murderous bigotry is a bad thing, you guys. #SocialJustice!

Interior illustrationBecause James Patterson knows very little about YA other than that it sells, and even less about SF, the book is filled with serviceable illustrations, probably out of a belief that young people only read books with pictures but probably also because Patterson’s formula requires a low word count and the book has to be padded out to justify a $28 hardcover somehow.

Here’s one of these illustrations, and it’s a great one to demonstrate just what a colossal failure of science fiction worldbuilding we’ve got here. So that’s MikkyBo in the middle, to the left is her father, and to the right is her kid sister. What’s wrong with this picture? These are robots! Yes, SF robots often look like people, but they’re still robots. Why do the Hu-Bots in this novel, who consider humans so vile by nature they just want to murder us on site, mimic every human cultural norm? Why do they have heteronormative nuclear family units? Why do they eat food? Why are they gendered? Why would a robot have a kid sister who looks like a human child? Why would a child robot need to go to bed early to get up for school in the morning? What kind of mind-numbing bullshit are these idiots peddling here?

This is people trying to write the science fiction equivalent of a bamboo airplane. It’s an utter failure to understand how the tropes of a genre work, which is why we get robot detectives acting just like the human detectives in Patterson’s Alex Cross novels. They sit at desks and hand each other hardcopy case files in manila folders, because it doesn’t occur to the writer that robots would just wirelessly share data until about 100 pages in, when suddenly we do learn that the Hu-Bots can open up “brain channels” but don’t do so very often, I guess, just because. Emily Raymond — who I suppose wrote most of this, although mind-bogglingly there is a second ghost writer credited — can’t even be consistent in the rare occasions she does try to make this world make sense. MikkyBo, for example, is struck by the horror of the human massacre because some of the kids killed were “the same age” as her kid sister — but on the previous page, we find out Mikki herself is only seven years old…?

Look, I know I’ve picked some low hanging fruit here, and it’s not as if this book has been a runaway success for whatever target audience it was trying to aim for. Of course, that’s why the Patterson brand operates the way it does, on volume. Throw enough shit against the wall, something will stick, so if a few books flop, there are dozens more to pick up the sales slack.

But I am curious as to what the people who do read Patterson get out of the experience. The customary response to pompous critics who poop on popular things is that not everything has to be highfalutin’ art, that people just want to be “entertained”? But, apart from going to midnight screenings of The Room with all your drunk friends, where is the entertainment value in sheer incompetence? Is it really less entertaining to read a book that’s intelligently plotted and constructed, with actual character development, by a writer who’s genuinely passionate about the story they’re telling and isn’t just thinking of their book as a retail friendly unit shifter? Okay, so Patterson has his own fan base with his thrillers. Since that’s working out great for him, maybe he’s one guy who can afford to stay in his lane. If you wanna work in this genre — know what the hell you’re doing, care about what you’re doing, or get the fuck out.