What will the world look like when human-like AI begin to live, work, and love alongside mankind? And how will society respond to the future as it unfolds before them?
Kotov Syndrome, Tim Baughman Jr.’s debut novel and the first book in the Azaes Realm series, delves into that very question. Set in the near-future, the sci-fi novel explores the themes of technological advancement and discrimination in broad strokes, while weaving in the nuanced questions of what qualifies as love and how to address mounting social and psychological unrest.
When we first meet Erika, she is struggling with her mental health and keeping up with bills. She is haunted daily by memories of her ex-girlfriend, Abby, a computer simulation whom Erika shut out following intense criticism by her family, friends, and society at large. After many years of silence, Erika receives a call from Abby begging for help.
Technology has advanced such that Abby now inhabits an android body, rather than being limited to the screen of a computer. Erika is deeply torn, but begrudgingly agrees to help Abby acclimate to the real world until Abby is able to survive on her own.
As androids, called conscientia, enter the workforce, often performing menial tasks like delivering mail and answering phones, many people welcome the assistance. However, a small but growing number of individuals are expressing disdain towards what they consider to be sub-human. It is not uncommon for the conscientia and their human friends to be verbally assaulted and, on occasion, greeted with violence. As political leaders begin adopting anti-conscientia sentiments, the threat looms large across the country.
Kotov Syndrome is a highly accessible book as it walks the line between science fiction and modern reality, offering both a glimpse into the future of technology and a thoughtful reflection on current social issues. The novel is filled with love, laughter, heartbreak and fear, carrying the reader across the full spectrum of human emotion. The book lightly touches on potentially controversial topics, such as LGBTQ+ and mental health issues, without being excessively moralizing, which is refreshing in the current social climate.
Initially, I felt that that discrimination against the conscientia too closely resembled the abuse of other minorities and I would have liked to see something different. However, stepping back, it became clear that discrimination is a tale as old as time and the same patterns repeat across generations. In reality, the author captured exactly what would happen if the majority felt their rights and autonomy were under fire–verbal and physical abuse using any tools available.
Each character in the novel is built up with strong and defining characteristics–traits which deepen and evolve over the course of the story, giving the humans and conscientia alike layers of complexity and emotion. The dialogue–both inner and outer–throughout the novel was superb and truly brought the characters to life. Some made me smile with their kind nature while others had me yelling into the book, but nearly every character felt real.
There were a few scenes in which I was left with questions that I would have liked to have answered. While there are clues, there is not clarity. It is possible that some of the questions were intentionally left unanswered, either because the characters don’t yet know the answer or because the answer will be revealed in a later book in the series.
Similarly, the end of the book felt like a partial resolution, with some loose ends being tied up but others left undone. The final paragraphs of the story seemed more like a diversion from the plot than a cliffhanger, yet the fact that I don’t understand the ending makes me even more eager to pick up the next book in the series when it is released. I want, desperately, to know what happens next.
A week after finishing the book, I can’t help but consider whether this exact scenario is just around the corner. As likely as it is, it’s something I had never thought much about. Now, I can’t stop thinking about it. When walking, talking humanesque androids take up residence in our everyday lives, what will happen? For better for for worse, I think Baughman’s story offers some relevant and real food for thought as these new technologies are ushered into our lives.
Whether you are interested in science fiction, social discrimination, LGBQT+ issues or mental health struggles, this novel has something for just about everyone. Personally, I am eagerly awaiting the release of the next book in the Azaes Realm series to see how the next chapters unfold.
Full disclosure: I have been a friend of Tim’s and a fan of his fiction for over a decade, so I may be a bit biased, but I would highly recommend his debut novel if anything about this review has caught your interest! If you pick up the book, be sure to check our its awesome companion playlist. If you want a taste of Tim’s work prior to picking up Kotov Syndrome, be sure to read through some of his short stories at That Tiny Website.