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Man and machine stories ambitious

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Daniel H. Wilson is a roboticist who’s best known — to the general public, at least — for bestselling novels such as Robopocalypse, Robogenesis and The Clockwork Dynasty. His new book, Guardian Angels and Other Monsters (Vintage, 304 pages, $22), is a short-story collection, and features some of his finest, most emotionally resonant writing.

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This article was published 05/05/2018 (1564 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Daniel H. Wilson is a roboticist who’s best known — to the general public, at least — for bestselling novels such as Robopocalypse, Robogenesis and The Clockwork Dynasty. His new book, Guardian Angels and Other Monsters (Vintage, 304 pages, $22), is a short-story collection, and features some of his finest, most emotionally resonant writing.

The stories share a common theme — the relationship between mechanical and flesh-and-blood people — but the variety among them is impressive. Each is written in its own style, each plucks different emotional strings, each has something new and different to say about the way humans and robots might interact.

If Wilson’s novels have increasingly hinted at greatness to come (his writing has gained strength with each book), this short-story collection shows just how fine a storyteller he really is. A splendidly written, thematically ambitious, poignant book.

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Speaking of robots, here’s the beautiful and haunting Sea of Rust (Harper Voyager, 384 pages, $20), by novelist and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill. In the future, after a robot uprising has destroyed all human life on Earth and rendered most of the planet a wasteland, Brittle is a robot scavenger who collects parts from other robots — sometimes while those robots are still alive — and sells them for the parts she needs to keep herself functioning.

After another scavenger leaves Brittle badly wounded, she becomes increasingly desperate to find a way to keep herself alive. She also gradually deteriorates, her mind losing its grasp on reality, her body shutting itself down a bit at a time. And, as she drifts toward death, she discovers, finally, what it feels like to be alive.

Cargill, who’s probably best known as the co-writer of the recent film Doctor Strange, achieves something genuinely amazing here: he tells a story rich in human spirit and emotion, even though it has not a single human being in it.

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When you read Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes (Flatiron Books, 320 pages, $21), you should pay very close attention; subtext is crucial.

On its surface, this is the story of a woman who meets a man and has an affair, only to find out the man’s wife is her new best friend. She also learns the man is a domineering husband and the man’s wife is hopelessly, even self-destructively, desperate to please him.

But wait: as the story progresses, the relationships between the characters start to shift, with unexpected revelations casting new light on things that had been kept in the shadows. And when the book ends, we’re left gasping for breath, blindsided by a plot twist so stunning that even hinting at it here would be criminal. Pinborough is an elegant, careful and precise writer: every word counts, every nuance has a purpose. A brilliant thriller.

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Help, I Am Being Held Prisoner (Hard Case Crime, 255 pages, $14) is one of the late Donald E. Westlake’s cleverest comic thrillers. Originally published in 1974 and recently republished, it tells the story of Harry, a practical joker who winds up in prison, falls in with a group of convicts who use a secret tunnel to leave the prison whenever they want and gets, entirely by accident, mixed up with a scheme to rob a bank.

Westlake, who died in 2008, was a master of comic crime fiction — perhaps the best there ever was. Nearly everything he wrote is a polished gem, but there’s something especially shiny about this one, something especially charmingly goofy. Maybe it’s the wordplay (Westlake gets a lot of mileage out of Harry’s last name — no spoilers), maybe it’s Harry’s escalating levels of anxiety as he looks desperately for ways to stop the bank robbery, maybe it’s just the sheer, wild implausibility of the whole thing.

Regardless, it’s a great novel, and you should read it.

Halifax writer David Pitt’s paperbacks column runs the first Saturday of every month. Follow him on Twitter at @bookfella.

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