The back jacket of Love In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction compares Judd Trichter’s debut novel to Blade Runner. It’s an easy parallel, as both works are neo-noirs set in an ugly future Los Angeles where humans have a problematic relationship with robots. But Trichter’s style hews closer to Philip K. Dick, whose novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? served as the basis for Ridley Scott’s film. Neither are interested in letting science get in the way of their philosophical science fiction, and both have a penchant for the grotesque that can bog down their better ideas.
Trichter’s novel follows Eliot Lazar, a drug addict in love with an android named Iris. That relationship is punishable by death for both lovers in some circles, a problem Eliot attempts to fix with a plan to run away to a more tolerant place. Those plans are interrupted when Iris disappears. When he learns that she’s been disassembled and her parts sold, he’s convinced that he can still live happily ever after if he can just put her back together.
While the hunt for secret androids in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? made a nice metaphor for Cold War paranoia, Love In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction uses mistreated androids as a stand-in for immigrants. Some humans—called “heartbeats” to distinguish them from the spinning motors found in robots—blame the artificial workforce for stealing jobs. Others point out that robots can do things humans can’t, like mining in the outer solar system, and that the two groups could benefit each other. But Trichter overdoes it. It’s not enough to show that robots’ low wages force them to live in overcrowded and terrible housing and sometimes turn to the black market for what they need to survive; he also has them addicted to caffeine and cigarettes even though that makes no sense.
There’s a lot of that sort of excess in Love In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction. Lorca—a nanny-bot turned revolutionary leader of a gang that deals drugs to heartbeats while preaching the eventual end of humanity—could be a great villain. Unfortunately, Trichter overloads her by also making her organization use the tactics of radical Islamists, including anti-Semitism, fueled by the fact that the inventor of the first robot was Jewish. A play on Walter Benjamin’s concept of artwork’s “aura,” Trichter makes the robot’s original assembly the key to recreating its own aura—in this case, its personality. It’s more fantasy than science fiction, but could be an acceptable conceit if Trichter were consistent. For example, he thinks it’s fun to have prostitutes that can swap their heads, so only some models are negatively affected by reconfiguration. The book’s title pays tribute to Benjamin’s essay, “The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction,” which also warns of the consequences of humanity’s inability to incorporate new technology in a healthy way, but Trichter has little profundity to add to the work.
Eliot is in many ways a perfect noir protagonist. He’s addicted to an android-made drug, which dulls the pain from his artificial arm. He seeks out Iris’ parts through a mix of lies, disguises, contacts, threats, and bribes while repeatedly getting beat up. He’s not a hero, a fact made clear by the chapters told from the perspective of an actual good guy—an old LAPD detective who becomes an antagonist for Eliot. But Trichter goes too far to show Eliot is a reluctant good guy with the excruciatingly long time he spends talking himself into stopping a snuff-porn maker in the process of dismembering a robot as she desperately screams for help.
Love In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction has plenty of great moments, like a bizarre scene involving a very high Eliot encountering a bot that has Iris’ torso and hallucinating that her vagina is chastising him for ending up in this situation. He also has a talent for powerful lines and potent descriptors like “the woman who lives in a world where she never has to drink from the bottom half of a latte.” That talent makes the novel’s problems all the more frustrating. Blade Runner is a loose adaptation of Dick’s story, cutting plenty of material, and the result was a genre classic. If Trichter’s novel had been better edited to keep it focused, it could have been something great, too.
Listen to a clip of Love In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction from Audible, where you can also get the audiobook.