by Helen Fox
Hodder Children's Books, 2003
Wendy Lamb Books, 2004
This is a science fiction book for children, intended for ages 9-14. It is a bit more thoughtful than most science fiction written for children this age, being a bit more concerned with what makes an AI conscious and a little less concerned with blood-and-thunder adventures.
The Bell family live in a middle-class English neighborhood at the end of the 21st century. Life is pretty good -- they have robots to do all of the housework, all of the comforts of modern living, and a school that makes learning fun. Their only concern, at the moment, is that their household robot, Grumps, is getting a bit old and makes unpredictable errors -- like serving dinner for breakfast.
This problem looks to be solved when they receive a gift robot, EGR3, from a scientist working with experimental IA's -- robots that learn like humans, and have advanced qualities like the ability question, lie, fear, and perhaps even to feel human emotions. This is a bit of an experiment, but the Bells are a forward-thinking family. And Eager is indeed Eager -- Eager to please, eager to learn, and eager to be a friend to pretty much anyone.
As it happens, some other odd things are happening around this time -- robots are not following directions as they should, the houses are acting up a bit, and the new line of high-end robots from LifeCorp, the BCD4s, are rather spooky in their efficient pandering... and sometimes rather unpredictable.
And the Bell children get some hints that their world is not as utopian as they had been led to believe. Life is good... but it is quite a bit better for the technocrats, who still get to travel on vacation, have fancy foods like pineapples, and can afford the latest and best technology... like the BCD4s. At the same time, the marauders that mug people on the street appear to be somewhat less threatening than advertised, making LifeCorp's claim that walled compounds and curfews are a necessary part of life somewhat suspect.
Perhaps the best aspect of this book is the critical thinking skills exhibited by the characters. They have sane conversations, recognize the relevant features of interactions, think in depth about ethical issues, and actively use programs like a VR Socrates to help them think through issues. While this novel is certainly written for children and the characters are very much human (and thus often illogical), it is one of the better books I've come across for modeling common sense and basic social skills.
At the same time, it is a good introduction to more seriois science fiction. Throughout the story, small but interesting effects of technology on daily life appear; the future is pervasive, but does not interrupt the actual story. While there aren't any exciting new ideas and it doesn't really meet the standard of hard science fiction, those are rarely found in children's novels. It does provide an interesting future that is based around believable-but-exciting technology where ideas are as much a part of the plot as is adventure..
Having said that, the writing is just a little bit off, although perhaps not more than you'd expect from an author's first novel. At times it moves a little too slowly, and at times a sentence is worded oddly. But nothing too distracting, and over-all it is quite well written. I also might take issue with some plot points, but I have not read the following books, and certain events that were a bit out-of-the-blue may have been simply setting the stage for future adventures.
Speaking of which, there are two more books in the series, Eager's Nephew and Eager and the Mermaid.
AR Book level: 5.0