Bernal walks into Muriel's house. He works for her, and expects to have a meeting. Instead he finds the house a mess and sees her tearing away across the lawn. As he tries to follow, he is cold-cocked by a burglar using a cast iron door stopper in the shape of a borzoi. When Bernal comes to, he starts following a trail of clues, trying to piece together just what the hell is going on. Along the way he meets lots of quirky people, making up one of the most diverse dramatis personae I've ever read. Things get weird very quickly. Unfortunately the novel loses steam almost as quickly, making for a somewhat unsatisfying read.
Muriel stays missing. Her last message sends Bernal to a research lab where she was funding development of an autonomous space probe named Hesketh. But Hesketh appears to be wandering across the Massachusetts landscape, and the researcher is nowhere to be found. Instead, Bernal meets up with Charis Fen, a black woman who used to be a cop. Since she left the force, she has been working with an organization called "Social Protection." It's set up to prevent the annihilation of humanity by the coming Singularity, so it makes sense that Hesketh, the robot explorer, would show up on her radar.
Working together and apart, they follow a host of clues that involve drug addicts, a serial killer, frozen heads, tow truck drivers, UFO chasers, burglars with refined tastes, and a diner whose owner specializes in elaborate conspiracy theories—all culminating in an action-packed finale.
Aside from that outline, the plot is much too twisty to summarize further. So let's break down some of the genre tropes that go into making this story. Pairing SF with mystery is a time-honored tradition. It goes back at least as far as The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1953). These are two great genres that go great together: the mystery plot gives the SF writer the leisure and rationale to go poking his hero's nose into every nook and cranny of the future world.
Then you've got near-future SF, which can aim a laser focus at aspects of our current society. For instance, the webzine Futurismic publishes only near-future SF. It describes its ideal thus: "innovative, exciting new stories that use the tools of speculative fiction to examine contemporary issues and take a look at what's just around the corner." This subgenre is simply bursting with potential, encompassing possibilities as diverse as John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968), Geoff Ryman's Air, or Have not Have (2005), and David Brin's Earth (1990).
Comedy is one of those forms that can attach to any genre, as is "romp." Comedy lurks in the eye of the beholder, of course, but a lot can be milked from putting "normal" people, with all their quirks, in traditional genre situations; see twenty-six-and-counting Discworld books for examples. And a good "romp" should be boisterous, energetic, and playful, dovetailing well with things that make a good comedy.
Brain Thief is most satisfying as a mystery, but the trail that Bernal and Charis follow is too linear. Once they settle down, each scene is structured the same way: they meet someone quirky. They chat. They get a new lead to follow. Next scene: new quirky person, new lead. And so on. Also, once you start wondering about the engineering that's gone into Hesketh, and the connections with a decapitation-happy serial killer, and a rumored failure of a company that freezes heads, the title Brain Thief gives rather a lot away. There aren't a lot of red herrings here, nor does the novel allow for much slow-building tension.
It is least satisfying as near-future SF. As far as I can tell, the only difference between Brain Thief's world and ours is the existence of Hesketh. So the potential of the mystery plot to display an unfamiliar world is unused. And the diverse list of corporations and characters we run into never combines into a coherent statement about the world today. The scientists and autonomous robot are definitely seen as threats within the story. Charis says to Bernal:
"You'd think there would be plenty of badass technology-specific activist organizations out there, but that's just a media thing. There ain't none. Everyone who is interested in artificial intelligence pretty much agrees on everything. They're all standing around their backyards waiting for the magic nozzle of the Singularity to suck them up. Pussies. All there is is pussies." (p. 232)
In the end the story seems to minimize the threat that Hesketh poses to mankind as a whole. In a way, this feels like an argument with the Singularity-centric thread of recent SF (for example, work by Vernor Vinge and Charles Stross). The story could almost be read as a joke at their expense: they're worried about esoteric and existential threats, and here's this downright traditional killer robot on the loose. Certainly Hesketh, as an AI, is never shown to be superior to humanity. Unfortunately, we never meet the engineer responsible for Hesketh's development—she's kept off-stage for the entire novel—and that keeps this thread from being as fully developed as I would have liked.
As a comedy, Brain Thief is absolutely brimming over with eccentric characters. Indeed, its aggressive focus on the purely human helps negate the Singularity threat. We get Muriel, a millionaire mourning for her son but funding the research of the scientist she blames for his death. A psychic, Naomi, who actually puts Bernal in contact with someone who needs to give him information. Maura, more-or-less normal but sister to a burglar who takes only the finest and most tasteful of artworks from the homes of the upper class. Spillvagen, who has lost his management job at a place that freezes the heads of the wealthy so they can be resurrected in the future. Yolanda, who stalks Spillvagen because she believes he is responsible for malfeasance with the head of her uncle. Patricia, a tow truck driver in thrall to the thuggish Ignacio. A group of Hesketh hunters in the vein of UFO hunters. Bob, waiter and conspiracy theorist extraordinaire at the Near Earth Orbit restaurant. Charis Fen herself and Bernal Haydon-Rumi himself.
I appreciate that the characters all have their own identity, and I especially appreciate the diverse nature of the casting. Here is Bernal's description:
Bernal Haydon-Rumi's fine features, wide brown eyes, and slim build showed his mixed Burmese/Greek/etc. ancestry, but the hair seemed pretty much his own invention. (p. 13)
She had a wide face and a huge tangle of dark hair. Her eyes were pale brown, almost yellow, nearly the same shade as her skin. She had a gift for stillness, and stood and stared at him, feet spread wide. (p. 34)
It's refreshing to see characters, both main and secondary, written without defaulting to WASPs. There's no need for these characters to be a particular race, so why not make them reflect our diverse reality? Excellent choice!
However, in the end Brain Thief falls down hardest in its romp-ish qualities. As noted earlier, after a fascinating opening, it settles down into a long series of short, repetitively structured chapters. This quickly becomes grating and saps the narrative of momentum. Also, Bernal is hit on/has sex with/gets the phone number of an unlikely number of the female secondary characters. One or two I could perhaps buy. Three or more in the space of a week or so? That narrative quirk induced several bouts of eye-rolling on my part. Luckily, the strongest character, Charis, is spared that particular indignity. By the time the action ramps up again at the end, one is glad to relieve the monotony. But you still get the feeling that the plot is sticking to its rails. While I have previously read and enjoyed some of Alexander Jablokov's short fiction, I'm afraid that this near-future-sf-mystery-comedic-romp doesn't quite succeed on any of those levels.