The Nero Protocol, by Victoria Zagar
Publisher: Less Than Three Press
Release Date: June 7, 2017
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Ario six-four-nine-one is an obsolete synth gigolo—especially when his latest trick proves to be his last in a brutal and horrifying way. But he’s only a synth, it’s not like he can really think and feel. No one will notice one more out of date synth tossed in the garbage.
Except for Elias, homeless and lonely because he’s not what his father—or the world—wants him to be, haunted by a tragedy for which he cannot forgive himself. When he finds a battered, broken, long-discontinued synth in a dumpster, he decides to repair the poor thing despite all the reasons he shouldn’t.
Then all those reasons come crashing down, and in order to save each other from a world that doesn’t want either of them, Elias and Ario will have to sacrifice everything they hold dear: freedom, safety, and even themselves.
Content Warning for:
Rape/Abuse of Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Trigger warning for descriptions of violence and sexual violence
I really wanted to like this book a lot. I thought the premise sounded really interesting and I was in the mood for something a little different. And let’s be real, you don’t get much different than a story about a lonely man falling for a synthetic sex worker, right?
The thing is, there is far too much going on here to really be contained to a novella. Which means, while there was some great ideas, none of them really got to be explored and developed to their full potential.
The premise of the story is that synths have been a part of human lives for years, but are mostly treated as glorified robots. Lacking any consciousness or the capability to ‘feel’ (whether it be emotionally or physically) they are treated as disposable, or worse, as outlets for physical or sexual aggression.
When the brilliant but troubled Elias finds synth ‘gigolo’ Ario in a dumpster, he repairs all of Ario’s broken components and brings him back to ‘life.’ Elias quickly realizes that Ario is a rare and precious synth, one that could fetch a large amount of money on the black market should anyone else get a hold of him. Keeping Ario safe is his only option, but even that comes at a price. Owing an unregistered synth is a crime and soon Elias and Ario find themselves seeking refuge with Elias’ influential father – someone who believes synths are not only less than human, but dangerous to boot.
Up until this point, I was sold on the whole concept of this story. But you know what let this down for me? It wasn’t Ario. It wasn’t any of the synths. It was Elias. He’s annoying. He acts younger than his years, something I find very strange for someone who has not only experienced great loss, but who has essentially been voluntarily homeless and living by his own wiles. The minute he is back in his father’s home, however, he reverts from this 28 yr old solitary genius, to a whiny, door slamming 16 yr old. And that didn’t change throughout the rest of the book.
Additionally, I thought the insta-attraction between Elias and Ario felt very strange what with one acting like they were a teenager, and the other lacking the ability to refuse any sexual advances. I think the story would have been better without the romantic element, or at least one where the romance develops in tandem with Ario’s higher consciousness. As it was, it felt creepy.
There are some interesting concepts in this book about artificial intelligence and what our responsibilities are towards synths who essentially function as humans. Concepts that are almost too big for this novella. But the too-quick ending wraps things up in a manner that feels incredibly unsatisfactory and far too convenient to be believed.
There is a great story here, but the way it was executed leaves a little to be desired. However, if you are interested in SFF, specifically stories about AI, you should still give this book a shot. It might just be the thing you’re looking for.
Victoria was born in the United Kingdom but emigrated to the United States at age 21. She’s bisexual, non-binary, happily married, and still shouts in a British accent. She lives with her husband in Pennsylvania where she spends a lot of time playing and talking about video games, especially Japanese role-playing games.
Besides the Culture Wars series, she is the author of a variety of LGBTQA titles, as well as forthcoming novels The Forbidden Zone (m/m) and The Best Of Both Worlds (f/f/m), contracted with Less Than Three Press. She loves to write about all colors of the rainbow and celebrate love wherever it may be found.
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I received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.