Nicky Drayden’s 2020 The Hero of Numbani is an Overwatch tie-in novel. Overwatchis a popular video game I have not played. More details here.
The Omnic Crisis (an AI uprising) is thirty years in the past. This matters to protagonist Efi Oladele mainly because living through the crisis left Efi’s mother with PTSD. What also matters to Efi is finding a way to use her exceptional intellect that will not cost her her best friends.
Efi’s accelerated education means that she can’t share daily classroom time with her best friends Hassana and Naade. To her increasing alarm, the pair — previously Efi’s friends but not particularly fond of each other — are bonding over experiences Efi does not share. Being forced out of the trio makes Efi uncomfortable. If she’s not the bond between Hassana and Naade, what is she, exactly?
At least her robotics work is going well. In fact, it goes so well that she wins a prestigious Adawe Foundation Fellowship. The genius grant isn’t just a giant wodge of money to fund the twelve-year-old’s research. It comes with a trip abroad to Brazil to see activist/DJ/hero Lúcio. Despite her mother’s fear of travel, Efi and her mom are off to Brazil.
Their timing is unfortunate. Noted Social-Darwinist terrorist Doomfist escapes from prison and breaks into a museum to steal back his trademark supervillain gauntlet. Efi and her mom are there as witnesses. Mom is traumatized; Efi is challenged. Doomfist easily overcame the OR15 security robots protecting the museum. The robots should have been better designed. Why, that’s something a young genius roboticist could do!
Step one: use some of her grant money to buy a surplus OR15.
Step two: when she is outbid for all the functioning OR15s, use a smaller fraction of her grant money to buy as scrap one of the OR15s demolished by Doomfist. It’s mostly a collection of scraps, but they are scraps with which Efi can work.
Result: Orisa, an OR15-derived, Efi-improved robot. While the tween has yet to acquire certain crucial components, in particular a fusion core and associated weaponry, Orisa is a potentially formidable device. The primary challenge facing Efi now is that programming can only take Orisa so far. For the robot to be effective in the real world, it needs experience in the real world.
Efi lives in the real world and the problems of neighbors and friends turn out to be quite useful in training her combat robot.
Doomfist is a rather affable villain, at least as far as Efi is concerned. He sees her as a potentially valuable recruit, so, rather than smearing her into paste whenever the opportunity arises, he tries to convince her of the merit of smashing stuff up in the name of progress. In fact, it’s possible that he’s providing her with some covert support. (Here I should note that this novel is aimed at younger readers and it’s far from noir or bloody; Doomfist seems to favour property damage over body counts.)
In some ways this book is like Big Hero Six (comic, film, manga, TV series, etc.). One major difference is that Efi does her thing because that’s the thing she wants to do, rather than because she’s struggling to come to terms with trauma (“coming to terms with trauma” is her mother’s story, which only pops up when it inconveniences Efi; imagine Bruce Wayne becoming, not the Batman, but an overprotective dad). Another notable difference is the tween hero’s robot pal. Big Hero Six’s socially awkward robot is a medical robot who, unless hacked, will flat out refuse to hurt living beings. Efi’s adorkable Orisa is a combat robot from the get-go. Orisa’s essential programming compels it to avoid civilian casualties, but it has absolutely no problem trying to hammer the crap out of Doomfist.
“It’s sure a good thing its target acquisition protocols are infallible!” I hear you say. Actually, they aren’t. One of the running themes of this novel is that there is a huge gap between the way designers envision their devices working, and the way they actually behave out in the field. Another theme is that brilliant engineers like Efi may not necessarily understand the degree to which reality has ceased to match the blueprint until their combat robot takes careful aim at someone it thinks is a terrorist. Orisa does learn from experience. So do people around it. What they learn is that it’s not necessarily safe to be around a combat robot that is still feeling its way around an unfamiliar world . But the robot means well.
Young fans of Overwatch may find this a diverting read (assuming they are not too busy playing the game…).
1: Readers also learn that the city of Numbani is considerably less litigious than 21st century US society. Lawsuits for incidental property damage would bankrupt Efi and her mom if she lived in the US.