Everyone has heard of the Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. We've seen how he used them to create stories based around paradoxical interpretations of these laws, including a trilogy of intriguing science-fiction who-dunnits. Now Isaac has passed his torch onto Roger MacBride Allen, through the graces of the Byron Preiss sharecropping factory.
Inferno is part of a planned trilogy, the sequel to Caliban, which introduced the eponymous 'No-Law' robot, as well as a series of robots that obey a variant of the classic Three Laws, the four New Laws. These give robots more freedom of action, as they depend on co-operative activities rather than the Three Laws' imperatives. In the same manner as Asimov's R. Daneel Olivaw/Elijah Baley novels, Inferno is a who, or perhaps what, dunnit.
The Inferno of the title is a world simmering on the edge of conflict between Settlers, new colonists from Earth, and Spacers, the robot-dependent descendants of the original terraformers. With the planet's terraforming beginning to fail, the scene is set for political crisis and civil war. Inferno explores the cusp: the murder of the planet's Spacer governor. In the ensuing turmoil the finger of suspicion points at Caliban, and Sheriff Alvar Kresh, together with Caliban's designer, must untangle the webs of conspiracy, whilst keeping the fragile peace.
There are a lot of share-cropped novels about, and the Estate of the late Dr Asimov has a lot to answer for -- with the Robot City and Robots in Time series filling the bookshop shelves. Most writers seem to use these simple pot-boilers as a tool for paying the bills, but Allen has interesting ideas and strong views, and uses them to raise Inferno above the general sea of mediocrity. His earlier novel Orphan of Creation explored the linked moralities of animal experimentation and human slavery, in a tale of living fossils. Inferno asks a new question: what responsibilities do we have to slaves we've created? The co-operative nature of the New Laws may be an answer, but remain chains of a different sort.
Inferno isn't classic Sf, but it is decent midlist writing, suitable for that long train journey or a Spanish beach. After his The Hunted Earth diptych, Roger MacBride Allen has become a name to watch in the Hard Sf field, and Inferno won't have done his career any harm.