Moral Code by Lois and Ross Melbourne (book review).

Dr. Keira Stetson revolutionised technology with her advances in ethical computing. Her MoralOS operating system has become an industry standard that ruined many social media-based businesses and moved artificial intelligence research forward by leaps and bounds. Her latest research in day-to-day use of AI has led her to an impoverished school in South America. When an earthquake traps her and the children in the collapsed building, all she can do is wait for rescue.

Billionaire Roy Brandt is excited to test the capabilities of his newest technology where it can do the most good. His nanites can map out disaster zones, locating survivors and guiding rescuers to the most secure paths. The chaos of the disaster will help him keep the technology secret so it won’t fall into the wrong hands. He did not expect a world-renowned scientist to be the one needing rescue.

Together, Roy and Keira must work to bring this emerging technology into a moral framework to improve lives. But microscopic robots are too easily weaponised and not every tech entrepreneur is working for the greater good.

I suppose the protagonist is Keira. She is the character that begins in peril and her advances in artificial intelligence and the moral code operating system for them are the primary motivators for the plot. The brief moment of danger she experiences in the first chapters led me to believe that, while I wouldn’t love this book, I would enjoy it as a light, techie travel read. Perhaps it might even be somewhat of a thriller. But no, very quickly Keira’s centrality becomes muddied as other characters begin to share in her expositional speeches and ethical discussions.

Any sense of danger or central plotline becomes dispersed amid more technological and ethical discussions with only slight pauses for the characters to show off the one thing that makes them more than a tech business person. One has a garden. Another likes to sail. Yet another has a collection of pop culture figurines. Keira is a character that is work obsessed. Fine. Many fine, moody crime dramas are focused around a protagonist with such a monofocus. What these protagonists don’t have are healthy marriages and friendships and hobbies. All these extras are shoehorned into Keira’s life in an attempt to flesh her out but instead spread her too thin and diffuse the focus of the novel while making her a tad unrealistic.

Casual conversations, such as there are, are usually dipped into for a sentence or two and are nearly always indicated by one or more characters winking at each other. How often do you wink at a person during a conversation? How often is that your only physical emphasis to your speech? When is winking casual? I would have related more to Keira as a work-obsessed overachiever slowly ruining her marriage and her own health through neglect than the good boss and colleague and wife and moral vigilante that she is presented as.

Most of the screen time goes to Keira and her colleagues, the ‘good guys’ but they do have a ‘bad guy’ counter. Mickey Temming is a tech company raider that excels in corporate espionage and blackmail to achieve his goals. These goals are the vague bad guys goals of being an unrepentant arse and getting more money and power than anyone else. His employees placate his bullying ways by giving him candy along with the secrets they’ve unearthed. Just as Keira and her friends act casual through winking, Mickey shows his crude childishness chewing candy loudly and strewing his surroundings with wrappers. He is already hated by most from his initial introduction, not just the principal cast but the background actors, too, and doesn’t really act as a foil for any plot except as a stereotypical bad guy out to weaponise new technology for profit no matter the cost.

Keira and Mickey might be working to control the same technology for opposing motivations but they don’t actually get pitted against each other directly. There is the sense that they are intended to be at war but it never pans out in any satisfying way.

The main flaw in ‘Moral Code’ is that a strong thread of plot is sacrificed for ideas that compete with each other. If one aspect, such as Keira’s vigilante efforts for example, had been focused on and followed rather than talked about from a distance, I would have had much more engagement with this book.

The many efforts of the characters are often portrayed at one remove through surveillance and therefore lack an immediacy and tangibility that brings facts to life: the eternal problem of telling not showing. ‘Moral Code’ has a lot of research behind it. Research into morality, technology, child abuse, law enforcement and so much more. While this is a great foundation for the novel it is also its downfall.

The authors need to be prepared to kill their darlings to get to the emotional heart of a good story. The emphasis on informing the reader about this great research comes out in the novel as great swathes of exposition from the characters disguised as conversation. The AI Elly began as a great source of story exposition. Explaining human foibles such as property ownership and belief in Santa Claus helps the reader understand the motivations of her creator. Several chapters in the conversational exposition fell away from interactions with the AI and into intellectual discussions between any and all characters that first slow then derail the momentum of any sort of plot.

This is a novel with great ideas but needs some editing. Not in the words necessarily but in the plot arc. So many issues are debated while things happened off screen that I quickly became unenthused and unengaged. There was no central storyline that pulled my attention from one chapter to another. I couldn’t be bothered to cheer on Keira when I was pretty sure her emergent AI with a new physical form could have been an equally good protagonist or I could have been experiencing their lives as a crime-fighting duo. With more focus on feeling over fact, the research behind this book could have grounded a great story.

I hope this review doesn’t discourage the authors from making further attempts at storytelling. I have read many books that I wanted to throw across the room and some that I did throw across the room. One has even been abandoned in an airport in disgust. I didn’t do that here. ‘Moral Code’ has great unrealised potential that I hope is revealed one day. Unfortunately, that day is not today.

LK Richardson

August 2022

(pub: Nonlinear Publishing/Books Forward, 2022. 380 page paperback. Price: $17.99 (US). ISBN: 978-0-99767-920-5

check out website: https://booksforward.com/loisandrossmelbourne_moralcode/

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