Tor Books / 282 pages / December 1997
Three good ingredients don’t guarantee one delectable dish, because not everything mixes well. It’s happened before: a series of short stories can be formed into the parts of a successful novel, but not this time. Sometimes, the thread tying it all together is too weak. Perhaps, Daniel should have left well enough alone. No, definitely.
It’s a tale of destruction, survival, and rebuilding, but with imperfect construction. “The Robot’s Twilight Companion” starts the novel off right, with a tale of a machine and a man and connection. Call me a sucker for artificial intelligence, but the main character is the best reason to continue reading. Orf, the sentient drilling robot, offers a gentle, compassionate personality, a touch of humanity. The humans that surround him have far less grasp of the needs and promises of being human. Orf is a tender soul in a world rapidly dividing. A world there will never be a better time to leave.
“Twilight Companion” has a sweet, lyrical quality. It draws in the reader. It made me love the character, but, as I said, soft-hearted machines are one of my favourite subjects.
Then, everything changes, like a first-date nightmare. He sounded so wonderful on the phone!
The tone of “Pennyroyal Tea” makes you nostalgic for the first section of the book. It’s a primitive world, where little of the old order has survived. Nothing has survived unchanged, and almost none of the changes are for the better.
The plot takes on a quest form, a search with a mystery at the end, a computer game on paper. And like most computer games — the commercial successes, at any rate — it is a brutal story. The violence is graphic and chilling, far too much and far too detailed for my taste. The suffering is prolonged and prominent.
This portion of the novel, the reader is not unhappy to leave behind. No endearing characters. No sentimental attachments. And less attachment to the rest of the book.
The book staggers to a close with “The New Exiles Of California.” It’s time for the cycle to repeat. Time also to bring the separate segments of the novel together, but it isn’t that easy; the segues are too forced, the coincidences incredible. The attempt to join the stories weakens the strength they each carry on their own.
Daniel’s writing is strong. His ideas are original and compelling. Whether short stories or novels are his forté, or if his talent extends to both forms, it is difficult to judge based on Earthling. So, don’t. Find yourself a copy of Warpath, his previous novel. Or check out his short story “Life On The Moon.”
You know how wrong first impressions can be. (After all, I loved the first third of Earthling.) Give Daniel another chance; maybe he’s just not a “first-date guy.” Really, he’s got a great personality.