The Preserve by Ariel S Winter (2020)
- Great concept
- Cop investigation a bit cliche
- Poorly written
- Main character unlikeable
(when they're supposed to be likeable)
The Preserve promises greatness. Set in a world where robots have evolved beyond their masters, the dwindling human population decides to section themselves away from robot rule on a preserve. Here, they focus on food-production, reproduction and are governed by their own law-enforcement. Introducing said law-enforcement, a single point-of-view protagonist, Chief of Police Jesse Laughton. Waking with a headache and a crippling pain down one side of his cheek (which is never explained or even hinted at an origin, bar possibly his annoying daughter and moaning wife), Laughton begins the main story’s plot – to investigate the first murder the preserve has ever had.
The Preserve has been compared to Westworld and Blade Runner, called a ‘fresh and futuristic mystery’. However, the classification of crime would fit this story better, due to the more formulaic approach, with no tension or mood established that could associate it with a mystery. A sci-fi setting housing a crime plot makes this novel more similar to Altered Carbon, however unlike that series, Winter doesn’t develop the sci-fi aspect much. Using the preserve as the setting displays a mundane backyard town, with the typical big-city cop turned family-man character, and the investigation of the murder.
With little new terminology, no expansion into the means or how of the robots, the world is a little lacking. The crime plot of the novel is intriguing in concept, the murder victim being a sims hacker – meaning he creates simulations plugged into the robots through a memory stick, which is illegal and dealt to robots like human drugs. While the crime plot does take the reader down multiple leads of investigation, to different suspects across the preserve, the ending isn’t very surprising. So-called clues dripped throughout the novel are far too obvious, with it easy for the reader to guess the plot early on – so it feels as though you’re waiting for a big twist, and when it comes, it isn’t well executed.
Following Laughton as the only point-of-view should mean he is a greatly developed character. However, he is very blunt in his thinking, solely focused on the investigation, or the pain in his head. His reactions to his wife, child and subordinates are rude and make him very unlikeable. The choice to have one point-of-view within the novel is common for a crime plot, as the reader is supposed to investigate as Laughton does, know what he knows, and have the twists revealed to the reader as it does to the characters. It makes a relatively simple plot more interesting to view through a limited perspective. However, with such an expansive sci-fi plot, Winter potentially missed a great opportunity to develop the world further through multiple perspectives, even if simply through Kir to show the robot perspective on thought, world and how the robots are created.
With a reader’s review of 3.14 stars out of 598 ratings, there are very few academic reviews regarding The Preserve. While Winter himself was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Shamus Award and the Macavity Award, this was for his novel The Twenty-Year Death – the front cover of The Preserve boasts a review from Stephen King “bold, innovating, and thrilling”, but which is, however, for The Twenty-Year Death also. Therefore, it’s clear that the lack of in-depth worldbuilding, dislikeable characters and cliched crime-writing make this a book where the concept was definitely better than the content.
Analysis: (Including Spoilers!)
Genre and Approachability
The Preserve has been termed a ‘futuristic mystery’ and compared to Westworld and Blade Runner. However, the classification of crime would fit this story better, due to the more formulaic approach, with no tension or mood established that could associate it with a mystery. A sci-fi setting housing a crime plot is another way of making the novel approachable from different genres.
While The Preserve’s concept is classic science fiction, using the preserve as the setting displays a mundane backyard town, with the typical big-city cop turned family-man character, and the investigation of the murder. There is very little world-building for the sci-fi readers, said to ‘world building is a bit scant. We are told about this premise and shown the world but very little gets explained as to how it all came to be.’ Winter builds very little world, as he states that the world is still the same as modern day, ‘"it's still a human world. […] President, Congress, the whole thing. We're robots, and we're still running your government. Your government in which we were considered things, not individuals. We're still speaking English, out loud. We're like colonials after the empire recedes, still living under the empire's rules."’ This adds to the approachability of the novel, meaning other themes or plots can be explored without alienating readers unused to science fiction.
Winter stays with one protagonist so sometimes, there are sections of the world-building which are told and not shown. These info-dump sections explain the new systems within the preserve, such as the fertility clinic or the school. These sections are very informative, and the concept is incredible, however the more successful world-building is explained as it is confronted in the world. For example, the best descriptions of robots and what they’re society is like, is done when Laughton and his robot partner, Kir, are confronted by the robots in the drug den; 'These were designer models with wheels, jewel-encrusted faces devoid of simul-skin, even one with electric jet thrusters'.
The Preserve has an investigatory plot. While Bacigalupi’s is expansive, covering multiple plot-lines following multiple characters, Winter has a single murder with a single investigator. The crime is intriguing in concept, the murder victim being a sims hacker – meaning he creates simulations plugged into the robots through a memory stick, which is illegal and dealt to robots like human drugs. It is an interesting concept explained succinctly by the hacker’s partner; ‘"Metals like human-written sims because of the messed-up shit we can think up that they can't.”’ The hacker’s murder is eventually linked to the ‘robocides’ where sims burn out robot’s hardware. While the crime plot does take the reader down multiple leads of investigation, to different suspects across the preserve, the inevitable link of both crimes, and the solving of such, isn’t very surprising. Smythe’s creation a burner program is mentioned so early on, it’s hard not to find Laughton slow in putting the pieces together. It reads as though they circle around the answer, putting off the inevitable, and denying it to superiors longer than is necessary. Similarly, the image of the Sisters on the truck in the first chapter cemented to an attentive reader that the truck-driver, Barry, was involved, and the drug’s supply and distribution link wasn’t as complex as Laughton made it out to be.
The end so-called twists were a mixed bag, which reviewers seem to agree that ‘the ending was a bit predictable’. While the Coast Guard arriving at the drug den too quickly was an obvious crime cliche, throwing Sysigns under suspicion, Laughton never considered that further down the investigation. On the other hand, while the name ‘Titanium’ had been thrown around hundreds of times, the reveal of who it was is so outlandish it feels as though the reader was cheated – it wasn’t hinted at, even with a second read, and the character wasn’t even mentioned enough throughout for the reveal to be satisfying. Further, ‘Titanium’ didn’t even turn out to be the bad-guy, instead stays middle-ground and disappearing without much of an impact. Finally, the resolve of the murder makes little sense, from why Smythe was murdered in the first place, to why Laughton didn’t suspect the murderer more with his ‘famous’ ability to read lies, to the questionable motives for their actions until the end of the novel. The explanations were understandable, but not very intelligent.
Added to that, Jones’ disappearance from the plot, without even a thought from Laughton as to his whereabouts, suggests a plot-hole simply missed in editing. A key moment I started to wonder regarding editing, was the moment where Laughton confronts Barry, to find someone else running from the house. Barry shouts, “Sam!” through the house, revealing a main character whose whereabouts were currently unknown. However, Laughton proceeds to threaten Barry until he reveals it was Sam, to which Laughton is surprised. It’s hard to think this is intentional, as the novel is written in close third point-of-view to Laughton, so telling the reader it was Sam without Laughton hearing would be unusual. Instead, it suggests a physical error with the text that Winter should have cut Barry’s dialogue, hinting at further editing issues.
The Preserve has very little new terminology. While the technology is advanced from today’s technology, it is easy to understand – they tap their phones together to transfer information, his front door is finger-print locked, and they have autopilot in their cars; 'The undercarriage lights that lit the guidelines on the road so the truck could stay on track cast an aura of light on which they floated.'. Even with these new pieces of technology, there isn’t any new names associated with them.
Winter’s idea of the robot is a more standard, simplified version. Simply using the term robots, the only technicality being ‘orders’ such as ‘low-order robot classed as a machine with no artificial intelligence’ – there is no explanation of how the robot’s work physically, how their AI developed, or even how they differ from humans, as their speech and thoughts don’t differ much from humans.
However, Kir is still the most interesting character by far. First introduced as ‘inexhaustible’, then added on by an explanation that 'Kir had been Laughton's first, and only, partner during his seventeen years on the Baltimore City Police Department. A series fourteen, class five robot, Kir was superior to humans in every way; intelligence, strength, stamina, senses. Unlike most robots, however, Kir had a great respect for humans, no small part of that due to Laughton.'. Kir’s dialogue with Laughton is the only friendly exchange Laughton has, through typical male banter and swearing: ‘"Who needs sleep?" Laughton said. "I certainly don't, meatbag," Kir said. "Just wait. I'll put you to sleep."’
The only technical side to robots we get is the description of Kir: ‘Six foot with dark hair, protruding cheekbones, and sunken cheeks, Kir was an imposing figure who could pass as human.’ Kir is different from most robots, as most robots can’t read emotions, though ‘they could emulate them pretty accurately' – Kir can read Laughton after 'thousands and thousand of hours of Laughton's face recorded in his memory giving the robot the ability to read his ex-partner'. This, in addition to robot’s thermal vision, charging port in arm, and need to charge rather than sleep, is all the technical aspect we get regarding robots.
Philosophical areas surrounding AIs are explored, minorly, through Kir, such as his ability to love. He shows care by offering to live forever to stay with Erica, or even living through her grandchildren’s lives. In addition, Laughton even states at the end of the novel that ‘robot meant that he loved him. And Laughton loved Kir too.’ Further philosophy includes the theme of death, as it is shown that death to a robot is a choice: ‘"[My father] said that robots were meant to serve people too, which is why he deactivated when he no longer had a human to serve."’, as well as ‘many of the aged robots had chosen deactivation over relocation.’
Kir also offers a different political aspect to the robots, 'he voted for the preserve, solved human cases no one else would, didn't mod his body, and now worked for the Department of Health and Human Services - but it was impossible for him not to still carry an intrinsic attitude of superiority.' This is contrasted with robots such as Colonel Brandis, 'a seven-foot, uniformed military robot […] a seventy-year-old robot of the old guard, and one of the most vocal anti-orgos in the world’ who ‘he wouldn't even consider a human on par with the lowest-order robots.’ There are many contrasting areas of human-robot relationships minimally explored, such as humans hating robots; ‘"how [robots]'re not really alive, that they're like a, I don't know, a toaster or something, just something that's supposed to be a tool, and who are they to push around their masters"’ – robots hating humans; ‘"Some robots purposely ran us down when we were crossing the street. They'd taken the car off auto, and had been looking for humans to hit, because why not? It's not like they got in trouble for it or anything."’ – but also robots loving humans’ ‘Robot protestors "Preserve the Preserve" "Be Better Than Humans. Keep Our Promises."’
In addition, to a small extent Winter explores cyborgs and the blending of both human and robots: ‘"Not that there's anything wrong with [being a cyborg]. They're humans first. They have the same rights to be on the preserve, and everything."’, however ‘If she'd been paralyzed, there was no way she could blend. Despite McCardy's egalitarianism, a cyborg that couldn't blend wouldn't be particularly popular on the preserve.’ This is further explored on the reader’s expectations of certain side-characters being either robot or humans, and being subverted. One being Grace Patterson, Kir’s boss as leader of the Department of Health and Human Services, who the reader assumes is robot as it is a robot department – however, it’s revealed near the end that she is human. It is a surprise, but a good one, as when you re-read, you see her responses to both Kir and Laughton are remarkably human, and the reader is satisfied with this twist. Similarly, when Kawnee-B is mentioned as a criminal that Laughton and Kir had dealt with back in Baltimore, the reader assumes he is human as he deals with human drugs – however, when he is found he is described as 'the cold metal cylinder as the ideal body. Like a Swiss Army knife, panels hid arms, blades, weapons, and more, each able to emerge instantaneously. [...] The side of the screen nearest the police showed a CGI face in such high resolution that the only thing preventing it from looking real was that it was flat.'. This is similarly a satisfying reveal, as well as an interesting development of the world-building and the different ways in which robots view humans.
Winter uses a sole point-of-view through Laughton. This suggests that the character would be very deeply developed, however, Laughton is displayed as very blunt in his thinking, solely focused on the investigation or the pain in his head. His reactions to his wife, child and subordinates are rude and make him very unlikeable.
His first mention of his daughter, Erica is 'overwhelming onslaught of noise' followed by multiple times of her hurting him in her exuberance. Even though he expresses being sorry for it, he always negates that with an explanation: ‘Every night he felt guilty that he couldn't give Erica what she needed […] But then right from the first thing in the morning, the barrage of requests, of questions, ignoring the answers, pushing, and the annoyance bubbled up right from the start of the day.’ This suggests that Winter didn’t intend Laughton to be unlikeable, trying to get the reader to sympathise, which seems unlikely when compounded with his treatment of his wife, Betty.
Betty is introduced with ‘'"Hello," she said, but it came out as almost an accusation instead of a greeting', followed by Laughton 'holding his hands out in the same "calm down" gesture he used to settle abusive spouses'. There are multiple times where his wife says she loves him, to which Laughton replies; ‘“Take care.”’ or ‘“Yeah.”’ Betty is never physically described, while every other side character is, including his particularly problematic description of the fertility clinic’s receptionist as 'uncomfortably attractive [...] He wondered how many donor's productions were fueled by fantasies of Jamie.' These aspects seem to be written in a way to show Laughton’s hardship, how an exuberant young daughter and a demanding wife is hard alongside such a difficult job, but it reads as very insensitive.
The choice to have one point-of-view within the novel is common for a crime plot, as the reader is supposed to investigate as Laughton does, know what he knows, and have the twists revealed to the reader as it does to the characters. It makes a relatively simple plot more interesting to view through a limited perspective. However, with such an expansive sci-fi plot, Winter potentially missed a great opportunity to develop the world further through multiple perspectives. Even with a dual narrative with Kir, the reader could understand much more about the robot world, their government, and robot’s AI through his interior thoughts, as Kir has an extremely interesting view on humans and Laughton. Similarly, Betty is shown as demanding through Laughton’s eyes, but she is a key role with fertility and teaching in the preserve, one of the most interesting ideas in this world, which could have been explored further through her. Even some of the side-characters could have added a new layer to the world without harming the plot – the commissioner or Mathews as a different police perspective, or Jones or Barry as one of the suspects.
References:  ‘The Preserve, Ariel S Winter’, Good Reads <https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/50890804> [accessed 6 March 2023]  ‘The Preserve, Ariel S Winter’, Good Reads.  ‘Ariel S Winter’, Simon and Schuster <https://www.simonandschuster.com/authors/Ariel-S-Winter/76855876#:~:text=About%20The%20Author-,Ariel%20S.,He%20lives%20in%20Baltimore> [accessed 6 March 2023].  ‘The Preserve, Ariel S Winter’, Good Reads <https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/50890804> [accessed 6 March 2023]  Mihir Wanchoo, ‘The Preserve by Ariel S Winter’, Fantasy Book Critic (2020) <https://fantasybookcritic.blogspot.com/2020/11/the-preserve-by-ariel-s-winter-reviewed_6.html> [accessed 6 March 2023]  Ariel S Winter, pg.196.  Ariel S Winter, pg.140.  Ariel S Winter, pg.20.  Ariel S Winter, pg.33.  Mihir Wanchoo, The Fantasy Book Critic (2020)  Ariel S Winter, pg.6.  Ariel S Winter, pg.162.  Ariel S Winter, pg.135.  Ariel S Winter, The Preserve (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020). pg.161.  Ariel S Winter, pg.25.  Ariel S Winter, pg.32.  Ariel S Winter, pg.134.  Ariel S Winter, pg.55.  Ariel S Winter, pg.34.  Ariel S Winter, pg.56.  Ariel S Winter, pg.230.  Ariel S Winter, pg.204.  Ariel S Winter, pg.112.  Ariel S Winter, pg.56.  Ariel S Winter, pg.54-55.  Ariel S Winter, pg.177.  Ariel S Winter, pg.94.  Ariel S Winter, pg.104.  Ariel S Winter, pg.175.  Ariel S Winter, pg.19.  Ariel S Winter, pg.21.  Ariel S Winter, pg.146-147.  Ariel S Winter, pg.25.  Ariel S Winter, pg.35.  Ariel S Winter, pg.25.  Ariel S Winter, pg.26.  Ariel S Winter, pg.172.  Ariel S Winter, pg.195.  Ariel S Winter, pg.62.