Wagner lets the story unfold in a passive, third-person voice, creating an atmosphere more reminiscent of nonfiction and biography than science fiction. Events play out as if a neutral party were merely reading the thoughts of Aiya, or calmly dictating her actions. As a result, no moral question or dilemma is resolved or answered by the narrative; the reader is left to ponder these questions themselves. This documentarian voice allows Wagner to paint with the brush of a journalist, depicting events clearly and factually. Feelings of disgust, fear or suspense in the reader are neutralized in favor of thoughtful inquiry measured with reasonable skepticism. Similar to most nonfiction explorations of modern events, An Unnatural Life eschews a normal, tidy ending for one that is more realistic. While Aiya’s emotional and social journey is certainly not uneventful, Wagner’s nihilistic take on the state of humanity does not leave room for much to change by the end of the story ... [the] subplot gives the novella an interesting cadence as it bounces the reader between suspenseful exploration and courtroom politicking, sometimes within the space of two paragraphs. An Unnatural Life will appeal to the philosopher within its audience, those who want to cozy up and consider a lightly challenging moral and ethical dilemma.
An Unnatural Life’s focus on justice, police brutality, the rule of law, and who will speak for those who are not heard has only become even more pointed and relevant by events that have occurred since it was written, and now upon its publication. For me, the strength of this work is not so much on character, or worldbuilding, but the themes and questions that it raises. Our knowledge of Aiya in the end is relatively thin, even given a novella length. There are some interesting worldbuilding bits, but those are relatively thin on the ground except where they wrap around 812-3 and how we got here ... The personal story of Aiya and her personal and costs are not quite as well rendered as the larger, global questions. They are indeed painful, but I didn’t think that they were foregrounded or laid down enough to really see and feel and connect with Aiya’s personal story as much as I would have liked ... What An Unnatural Life makes clear, even at professional and personal cost to Aiya, is that without the bravery and willingness to put oneself on the line, that arc never will bend at all. That’s a sobering and thoughtful message, for any age, especially our own.
Stories about the rights of artificial life, especially those convicted of crimes, have a long history in speculative fiction, and while Wagner raises fascinating questions about what it means to be human, they’re questions that have been asked before. Though Aiya is a rich and thoughtfully crafted character, 812-3 never comes across as a full presence in his own right, undermining the story’s themes. Fans of AI-centric sci-fi will make quick work of this, but wish for a fresher angle on a familiar idea.