An invention meant to enlighten becomes a destructive force in Landshield's two-part debut novel.
In part I, set in the era preceding the French Revolution, a skilled inventor and showman decides to move his creations beyond parlor games and build a robotic man. Kempelen's belief is that interacting with this automaton, created in the image of a "perfect" human being, will inspire his countrymen to expand their thinking beyond the conventional. With the help of a wealthy aristocrat, he develops Gaston, a mechanical man in the image of an idealized person. Gaston captures the attention of the French aristocracy, and eventually word of him spreads throughout the country. The automaton eventually gains independent thought, although he is still easily swayed by the beliefs of others. When Maximilien Robespierre discovers Gaston's capabilities, to Kempelen's dismay, the robot becomes a tool in Robespierre's "Reign of Terror." Part II, set in the twentieth century, finds the long-hidden Gaston unearthed by a group of clerics who believe that he is divine, providing them with a direct link to God. A willful teenage hippie finds Gaston and brings him into the public eye, believing that he will inspire her generation. As more people realize Gaston's abilities, he becomes entangled in a tug-of-war between various groups who wish to control him to bring about their own version of "enlightenment." Once again, however, others' attempts to manipulate Gaston lead him to a violent path. This novel's themes of humans' ability to control their creations has been explored in many other stories; however, the two time periods—1700s France and late-twentieth century America—give them a new spin. The first half also draws some interesting comparisons between the fictional Gaston and Robespierre, smoothly blending the historical facts of the time period with the elements of the novel. The second half is the weaker of the two, as some of the themes from the first half are reiterated and Gaston's actions are repeated; additionally, while the first half has a number of sympathetic characters, those in the second half are largely unlikeable. Still, the final pages of the book offers some unexpected twists that will reward readers who stayed to the end.
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