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The Mother Code
by Carole Stivers
Berkley, $26.00, 337pp
Published: August 2020

This was a tough choice standing in the bookstore aisle – a story about a pandemic.  But the concept of trying to save the human race by creating a robot capable of incubating, birthing and raising a human baby was compelling.  And I was glad I took it; the pandemic was simply the background, not the focus.

So a nasty virus was loosed on Earth and while our intrepid heroes try mightily to find a cure, the bug is too lethal and too fast.  As a last ditch effort, a generation of robots are created with the ability to incubate a fetus, birth it, and raise it.  The first step is to engineer a fix to the fetus’ DNA to resist the virus, then to create an incubator; and those are the easy parts.  The hard part is creating a robot that could raise a sentient, and sane, human being.  It’s well known now, the damage that can be done to a developing psyche when deprived of a nurturing human touch and face.  But one woman scientist does the impossible.  She creates “soft hands” for the robot to touch the baby, and video screens to display the donor mother’s image; and those are the easy parts.  The harder part was to create a program that could respond appropriately to a growing child and give appropriate responses; she called it the “mother code.”

The program had more than one response level depending on the developing pandemic scenarios.  In one, the robot birthed the baby which would have been given over to a human to raise; a human who had been vaccinated against the virus.  The problem was that they couldn’t find a true vaccine; what they developed just delayed the onset of the disease. But when they discovered a small ethnic population naturally resistant to the virus, it appeared they had a viable solution.

But, the second-level response was designed as a fail-safe should the first scenario fail.  This response level implanted a program into the mother-robots that sent them into the Utah desert, alone.  Their program instructed them to raise the children until it was time to locate and join with other children; fifty robots were sent out.  Supply depots were positioned in the desert to supplement their scavenging efforts.

With the discovery of the virus-resistent population living on a Native American reservation in New Mexico, it seemed they would never need the second response level. But, of course, things didn’t go according to plan.  And this was the lamest device in the book.  I won’t give a spoiler because it is a pivotal moment but the events that triggered the second-level response annoyed me.

The next crisis was that the robots were sent out without a “come-back” code so the scientists were unable to bring the robots back.  Ten years later, they are still monitoring the robots the best they can with drones; except the robots keep shooting them down and would shoot any human who approached – due to their programing to keep the children safe.  Rations are getting scarce and the hostile environment is threatening the children’s health and ability to survive.  So the remaining scientists try even harder to rescue the children; traveling back to a deserted and hostile San Francisco where it all started to find the woman scientist’s files or records – looking for something that would help them change the robots’ programming.

But the solution isn’t quite what they hoped for. They are able to direct all the robots and their charges to a more hospitable environment but are still unable to approach the children; until another child provides a possible solution.

This was an entertaining read with some interesting concepts to consider.  I especially enjoyed the story when threads starting coming together and we finally got some insight into the mother-bots perspective.  The characters were somewhat shallow and the world-building non-existent.  The focus was all on the mother-bots development and the children’s dependence on them. There was also a serious dearth of information about how many children survived; if they were all sane or if there were resources to support them. And the ending was a bit sappy but for a debut novel, it is a worthy effort.  ~~  Catherine Book

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