Science Fiction Book Review: Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth Powell

I like weird, fun science fiction books, and I love doing sci fi book reviews of weird, fun books.

This week we’ll be talking about Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell.

I discovered this book while writing a post about dieselpunk, and decided the check it out. The premise was too good to ignore: A sentient, gunslinging, Nazi-killing, fighter-pilot monkey wakes up out of a simulation to wreak havoc on fascists in 2059. I was hooked.

And this book is a nice intersection of genres—the war-fueled frenzy of dieselpunk 1944, and the futuristic, political, cyberpunk world of 2059. In this science fiction book review of Ack-Ack Macaque, I’ll discuss some background for the book, as well as what I loved, and vice versa.

The Background

Ack-Ack Macaque first appeared as a short story in Interzone in 2007, and was later transformed into a trilogy of novels, the first one published in 2012.

Gareth L. Powell is a British science fiction author who has tens of short stories in professional venues as well as a few stand-alone novels and other trilogies.

His debut novel, Silversands, garnered a favorable review in The Guardian by Eric Brown. After that, he published a few other books, including The Recollection, and a space opera trilogy that starts with Embers of War.

Ack-Ack Macaque is by far his most recognized work, having won the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel in 2013. The two other books in the Ack-Ack Macaque series are Hive Money and Macaque Attack.

Primate With the Big Iron on His Hip

One of the things that drew me to Ack-Ack Macaque was the cover art, featuring a cigar-munching monkey wielding his massive chrome Colt .45. It’s such a bizarre image that I knew there was a great story behind it.

And I was right.

While Ack-Ack Macaque is the titular character, the book is split into three different perspectives. The monkey, the heir to the throne of Brittany, Prince Merovech, and a cybernetic journalist, Victoria Valois.

Both Merovech and Valois are wrapped up in a nationwide conspiracy, watching the doomsday clock tick closer and closer to nuclear Armageddon. When Merovech and his friend Julie manage to pull Ack-Ack from the simulation he’s been living in, the primate is more than eager to, as he would say, “blow shit up.”

While at first glance, the novel seems to be about a battle-hardened monkey shooting down Nazi ninjas in his fighter plane, the story is a lot deeper than the crash-and-burn of WWII carnage.

sci fi book review ack ack macaque

Bridging Two Genres

Powell begins to tackle topics of live after death via android bodies and downloaded consciousnesses, as well as the exploring the fine line between what’s human and what’s machine.

I’m a big fan of conversations about artificial intelligence and “more human than human” ideas, and I wasn’t expecting to find those things in Ack-Ack Macaque.

My expectation was to read a fun, wild ride full of gun-toting monkeys, and in some ways, Powell stayed true to that promise. However, I feel that the combination between dieselpunk 1944 and futuristic 2059 was a tad forced.

Ack-Ack Macaque seems too well-adjusted when he pops out of the simulation, and we slowly glean information about his life before taking up the mantle of Nazi-killer in the video-game simulation bearing his name.

You’d think he’d need a lot more time to figure out what’s what, having just spent who-knows-how-long in a fictional world without computers.

But I think it had to be done for the sake of timeliness. Ack-Ack Macaque is about 400 pages, but it really flew by, and I think Powell achieved this by simplifying the character arks. The main characters have singular purposes, for the most part, and each scene is meant to push those purposes forward. There’s not a lot of backstory or humming-and-hawing, and every chapter ends on a mini-cliffhanger.

For a book of this type, that kind of pacing is important to keep up the excitement, and it works.

As I continue to read the other two books in the series, I’d like to see some more fleshed out details about Ack-Ack’s past, as well as the past of some of the other characters too.

Science Fiction Book Review Rating

I really enjoyed Ack-Ack Macaque. It combines two seemingly different genres and pulls them together under one cover, and it’s full of twists, even though you can see most of them coming.

Where I think the book excels is with its contemplation of human-ness. Ack-Ack is a primate, albeit a highly-advanced, daiquiri-drinking primate, but he exudes more humanity than some of the other characters. And throw in android clones and downloaded consciousnesses into the mix, and you’ve got a while dilemma on your hands.

I’m excited to see where the story goes after the first book, and I hope there’s more Spitfire dogfights, even though that ship may have sailed.

Overall, I rate Ack-Ack Macaque an 8.5/10.

In many ways, Powell’s style of writing embodies what I want to do with my own writing, which is create a weird, fun story with moments of deep introspection. And for that reason, I think the meta of Ack-Ack Macaque is almost more important than the story itself.

So, get out there, find your monkey, and let him blow stuff up.

The Robot Definition & Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.

Nowadays, the term robot has come to mean a few different things, whether that’s Terminator, a Roomba, or the industrial robots used on manufacturing assembly lines.

Robot means, according to Merriam Webster, “a machine that resembles a living creature in being capable of moving independently and performing complex actions.” Or, on a rudimentary level, “a device that automatically performs complicated, often repetitive tasks.”

But, to really get to the source of the robot definition, we have to take a trip back to 1920, Czechoslovakia.

(Spoiler warning for R.U.R.)

Robot Precursors

Automatons and mechanical human facsimiles have been a part of literature for thousands of years. In Homer’s Iliad, Hephaestus is described as having two golden handmaidens who possessed “intelligence in their hearts.” The handmaidens’ purpose was to hold up Hephaestus’ old, frail body, and not much else.

And we’ve seen a slew of automatons in literature since the classic Greek days. Frank L. Baum’s Tin Man might even be considered an automaton!

But in 1920, the Czech playwright Karel Čapek published his seminal work, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) and effectively solidified the word ‘robot’ into the human lexicon.

R.U.R. In a Nutshell

The premise of Čapek’s play revolves around the idea of a disposable workforce. The main, human characters, work in a factory that produces lifelike robots that are used for all kinds of tasks. Much like our 21st century use of robots—for industry. But, as the play continues, the robots overthrow humanity and essentially become human, capable of thoughts and feelings.

Broken down so simply, R.U.R. reads like the science fiction version of Marx’s Communist Manifesto, with the robots standing in as the proletariat workforce. But, that’s a topic for another time.

Robot Definition as Laid Out by Čapek

The term originated from the Old Slavonic word rabota, meaning “servitude of forced labor,” and in Czech is roboti.

While robot has come to mean a whole slew of things in the modern English language, it’s still rooted in the old Slavonic roots: servitude. Many of our modern robots—the Roomba, for example—don’t have the semi-sentience of Čapek’s robots.

Despite the depictions in the performances of R.U.R.—which show the robots as coated in metal armor with stiff, calculated movements—there are various places in the play where they are said to be near-human, the products of advanced biotechnology.

In the first act, the factory’s general manager, Domain, describes it as the place “where people are made.” And later, one of the characters is revealed to be a robot with much surprise because she was indistinguishable from her human counterparts.

Čapek’s robots are much more advanced than vacuum-bots; in the age of science fiction, we might better describe them as androids. But, the playwright did far more than introduce a popular term into our language, he also pioneered the modern idea of acquired humanity.

rur 1939 production poster
Poster for a production of R.U.R. in 1939
Photo from Wikipedia

Years Ahead of His Time

So Čapek gives us the robot definition, but he also presents the notion that artificially-created humanoids might have feelings and the potential for human thought processes. By the end of the play, the robots have taken over the world, but are unable to reproduce or construct new robots.

The big reveal occurs when the robot based off of the human character Helena, and another robot named Primus, come to the conclusion that they “belong to one another,” having somehow discovered emotions and fallen in love. Earlier in the act, the robot Radius explains that the robots have attained humanity, or an accurate imitation of humanity, because they “have read books. We have studied science and the arts. The Robots have achieved human culture.”

As intriguing and advanced as this might have been in 1920, the notion that biologically or mechanically engineered entities can become capable of emotion and human thought is a reality in the modern age.

Great strides in computing have led to deep-learning artificial intelligences that cannot only create their own problem-solving algorithms, but can learn to mimic human emotion.

Mark Riedl, a professor from Georgia Tech with a specialization in AI systems, has been gradually teaching AI common sense and ethics using stories. Much like R.U.R., Reidl is utilizing culture instead of code to teach AI.  

Reidl says “When we talk about teaching robots ethics, we’re really asking how we help robots avoid conflict with society and culture at large…. The more an AI system or a robot can understand the values of the people that it’s interacting with, the less conflict there’ll be [and] the more understanding and useful it’ll be to humans.”

And yet, teaching AI and robots via culture poses the question: “Who’s to say that the wealth of sci-fi media that portrays AI as evil won’t bring about our downfall?”

It happens in R.U.R., the culture of “slaughter and domination” precipitates the robots to destroy mankind. Will the human obsession with robot overlords condition our technology to become just that?

Final Thoughts on Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.

We have Čapek to thank for the proliferation of the term ‘robot’, but more importantly, he raised questions about the ethics of robots, androids, and AI.

As we move forward in our pursuit of science, it’s critical that we take a moment to consider the morality of our experiments. That’s why science fiction is such a powerful tool.

R.U.R., Blade Runner, Terminator, etc. show us scenarios of what might happen in the future if we’re not careful today.

Even though the robot definition is steeped in the mindset of servitude, we should strive to create an environment of collaboration, not isolation. Putting the debate over born-humanity and acquired humanity aside, we can make conscious decisions to change the mindset around AI to one of respect and partnership. Who knows, your Roomba might remember the time you kicked it and is harboring a deep resentment, biding it’s time to strike.