“The Six” Review

3.5 star rating

Contrary to author Mark Alpert’s claim in his note at the end of the book, The Six is most definitely science fiction. Its essential premise and technologies are based on the states of science and technology in the mid-2010s, and it relies heavily on projections of the science and tech into the future, making it “hard” SF.

There are two core story-lines: the ability of doctors to map all of the synaptic connections in a human brain—the “connectome,” although Alpert never uses the term—and artificial intelligence. In this story, technology has advanced enough that it is not only possible to map a person’s connectome, it’s possible to copy it into a vast array of “neuromorphic” computer circuits which, like the brain, can rearrange themselves at will as the computer (or computerized person) learns and experiences new things. That technology is now ready for trial. Unfortunately, the test will kill the person whose brain is scanned and mapped. To get around that major ethical problem, six volunteer teenagers, all suffering from terminal illnesses—mainly cancer or Duchenne muscular dystrophy—are chosen to be the “Pioneers.” If successful, their minds will be recreated inside hulking, 600 pound robots whose shells protect the computer/brain inside.

At the same time, the father of protagonist Adam Armstrong (no symbolism in that name, is there?) has developed a fully-conscious artificial intelligence. He’s not alone: the Russians are doing it too. Unfortunately (of course), the AI, called “Sigma,” escapes its lab and goes on a rampage against all of humanity, whom it views as its competition. The Pioneers are (of course) the only ones who can defeat Sigma.

So far, so good. But this is where my reasons for scoring the book down come in. First, Alpert’s use of the technologies involved is heavy-handed. The first several chapters are rife with info-dumps. Then, once the kids’ minds have been successfully transferred into their robots, we’re constantly reminded how long it takes Adam to think a thought, see, analyze, and react to something, etc. Every time he looks at something, we’re reminded that he turns his turret (his head-substitute) and uses his camera eye-replacements to do so. Alpert delivers technical specifications on too many pieces of military hardware (the U.S. Army is, of course, involved), including at one point, the exact designation of a shell being fired at Adam from a Russian tank! Alpert seems intent on not letting any piece of his research go unused.

Second, Sigma is a one-dimensional villain, intent on nothing but destruction by whatever means is necessary, from torture to nuclear weapons. One can imagine it twirling its electronic mustachios while crying, “Mwaa-haa-haa-haa!” Writing aliens, which a sentient AI would qualify as, is hard enough without resorting to clichés.

The book is not a total loss, however. Alpert does a good job giving each of the kids a distinct personality and set of motivations. Once we get past the draggy opening chapters, he does a similarly good job of throwing one obstacle or problem after another at the kids, each one worse than the one before. And the pace picks up even more once he starts shifting into the perspective of Shannon, one of the other Pioneers. These positives pull my overall rating up to 3.5 stars, but they’re not enough to raise it to 4 or higher.The Six is by no means a bad book. Science- and tech-loving teens will likely enjoy it and its sequels, The Siege and The Silence.

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