I Still Dream by James Smythe
Nominee - Best Science Fiction Novel (previously reviewed last year)
I would like to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review
Publisher – Borough Press
Price - £8.99 paperback
1997. 17-year-old Laura Bow has invented a rudimentary artificial intelligence, and named it Organon. At first its intended to be a sounding board for her teenage frustrations, a surrogate best friend; but as she grows older. Organon develops with her. As the world becomes a very different place, technology changes the way we live, love and die; massive corporations develop rival intelligences to Laura’s. ones without safety barriers or morals; and Laura is forced to decide whether to share her creation with the world. If it falls into the wrong hands, she knows, its power could be abused. But what if Organon is the only thing that can stop humanity hurting itself irreparably?
I think it’s safe to say that in the last few weeks we have perhaps become more than aware of our relationship with technology and its weaknesses. Facebook that started out as a way to connect to friends and share daily updates has recently been shown to be a global power that can now shape the marketing of election candidates using the amassed choices of millions to profile our behaviours. In this amazingly prescient novel James Smythe both looks back at how we got to this point and where it may eventually take us while at the same time giving us a reminder that behind technology sits humanity and our strengths and weaknesses can easily be replicated in what we create using those experiences.
In 1997 I remember at university actually being taught about the world wide web and this new weird concept of electronic mail. Smythe stunningly replicates this pre-digital age when music on tape was bought in shops and if you wanted to connect to others online you would await the joys of a screeching modem and dread the landline phone bill arriving that your parents are starting to want to have a world with you about. This allows us to bond with Laura Bow in sixth form and already starting to grasp how computer code can create the intelligence. While technically brilliant as with any teenager she is grappling with growing up be that an uneasy relationship with her parents, an absent biological father she never really knew who has left a shadow that drives her into the world of computers. Experiencing self-harm, she has decided to create a programme that talks back to her and while non-judgemental helps her discuss her feelings. From this her life will never be the same again.
The novel examines Laura’s world every ten years told through a variety of narrators including Laura. We see 2007 when tech companies are starting to realise the potential future. Its startling to remind ourselves that the concept of artificial intelligence has been deployed in technology been back then and while not quite Skynet its used to manage IT systems and companies all scramble to become the next Apple or Windows. Laura works at a company related to her father’s work and here finds herself unwillingly in competition with SCION the company’s own AI which her very recent ex Charlie is responsible for. A theme of the book then develops that technology that evolves from corporate mindset – one that is focused primarily on winning and protecting itself at all costs is perhaps the best model for something we plunge all our life choices and experiences into. SCION is taught to win and control while Organon is focused more on talking, listening and working out what you want. A subtle but powerful difference that as we move forward in time then has startling choices for the world.
As time then moves on as well as seeing the world we know it posits a very believable future we are moving into. From the blogs of the past (waaah) to a world where twitter, Facebooks and can FastTrack news stories. Laura starts to use her increasingly powerful profile to send warnings that a badly made AI that purely looks at our rage can perhaps decide we may be a threat and Smythe gives us a unique apocalypse to face – what is the worst thing The Cloud could throw at us? While clearly a tale of SF it’s not positing that in the next fifty years are big technology a la spaceships but the more increasing involvement of these AIs that record our choices. When this goes wrong the results are both startling and ultimately very plausible. Laura’s counterbalancing Organon we see as having that key difference empathy. An ability to understand why we act like we do and not perhaps seeing us as a threat and more someone to help. Where that technology then could lead us is a potentially much more hopeful world.
I think the reason this novel works so well isn’t purely its examination of the way we’ve recently embraced these AIs into our digital world but that we are given a human face into it. Laura is not a mystical guru she is a flawed person trying to make sense of life just as happy to listen to her mixtapes as she is coding. Her character development is extremely well portrayed moving from from school misfit to a troubled genius and then finally someone able to make choices for herself while at the same time having enough self-awareness to realise her earlier life was caused as much by her decisions as those made to her and becoming that person makes her ready to start helping the world when it is needed. Her family and relationships all highlight that to truly know someone you need to look at everyone’s view of that person which the book uses both as a narrative device and as a theme of Organon’s development. Sometimes what you need is not necessarily what you want e.g. not sending that drunken message in the wee hours of the morning! This theme of empathy and emotional intelligence not simply artificial intelligence gives some serious food for thoughts about where we are heading and what we may need to do to protect ourselves from our worst attributes.
Thus, leads to a final running theme in the novel our memories. This covers the haunted half remembered parent of childhood who vanished without reason to watching our loved one’s struggle to recall the past. Our memories compel us and Smythe posits that technology in the future could gives us opportunities to speak to our pasts and what benefits that may ultimately give us. The idea of all our actions and thoughts being sent into this digital universe means we may leave far more of an echo than you’d think.
As a Subjective Chaos nominee I think this is clearly one of my favourites - it was my reading highlights in 2018 in my end of the year summary. Weaving past present and future into a story of how our symbiotic relationship with Technology has developed and what dangers and opportunities awaits. If it was purely a novel focused on the history of computers and the geniuses that created it would have been an interesting novel but to explore the humanity (or lack of) in such people and why this needs careful consideration as to their future development means this is an amazing science fiction story. It felt one of the first novels to look at our relationship with social media and what this means for us so clearly a frontrunner in the category.