Women’s Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women, 1891-1937

Reviewed by Sandra Unerman. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

In her introduction to this collection, Melissa Edmundson refuses to pin down a definition of the Weird. She discusses the history of the genre and considers ghost stories, Victorian Gothic and encounters with the unknown. But she places the stories chosen within a broader tradition of supernatural writing by women. As a reader, I enjoyed the mixture of flavours and moods, which results from this eclecticism, in preference to a narrow focus on one kind of tale.

The stories all convey a strong sense of place, in settings from Australia to Canada by way of the English countryside. For example, ‘The Red Bungalow’ by Bithia Mary Croker is set in Northern India, in the days of the Raj. It expresses the vulnerability and alienation experienced by British women and their children in a country that is not theirs, with a landscape and traditions they do not understand.

A sense of history is also a common characteristic. Even the stories set within the lifetime of the authors introduce the current reader to details and attitudes strange to us now, like the shirt waist and corduroy skirt suitable for young women travelling in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘The Green Bowl’. One story set further into the past is Marjory Bowen’s ‘Florence Flannery’, which provides a thoroughly unromantic depiction of a Devon manor in 1800, with a couple brought together by loneliness and poverty, who are haunted by events from three hundred years earlier. ‘The Blue Room’, by Lettice Galbraith, set in a Scottish castle, also concerns a haunting of earlier times, from the 17th century but sets characters with deliberately modern (at the time) attitudes, including a ‘clever, strong-minded young lady’ to challenge the evils of the past.

The role of women is often the focus of attention. ‘A Twin-Identity’ by Edith Stewart Drewry, is narrated by a female French police detective, who shows persistence and courage in her pursuit of a murderer, as well as the sensitivity to follow the supernatural clues she is given. Other tales take a more complex approach. In ‘Young Magic’, by Helen Simpson, Viola grows up neglected by her mother and her nursemaid but is content to play by herself, ‘exactly as a cat does’. She finds opportunities for encounters with invisible beings, which are both more satisfying than those she invents and disappointing because her contact with them is so limited. At one level, the story is about the constraints and limitations of her life as a middle-class girl, especially as she grown into adolescence. At another, it is about the power and danger of the imagination.

Some stories draw their strength from their depiction of character and setting, while others evoke the uncanny with more intensity. Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The House’ is one of the most memorable entries, as it draws the reader into the painful emotions of a young woman, and her vision of domestic bliss. For me, the supernatural element here seems almost incidental, not a significant feature of the story. By contrast, I found it difficult to sympathise with the narrator of ‘Outside the House’ by Bessie Kyffin-Taylor, a man reluctant to take advice or consider the wishes of his fiancée and her family. But the haunting of the family house from the outside struck me as both unusual and powerful, particularly in the way it engages with class conflict and industrial tragedy.

Two of the thirteen stories show familiar authors in an unexpected light. L.M. Montgomery’s ‘House Party at Smoky Island’ deals with love and jealousy in a darker mode than Anne of Green Gables, while Flora Poste of Cold Comfort Farm might not approve of the way the narrator of Stella Gibbons’s ‘Roaring Tower’ indulges her emotions. But the greater strength of the collection lies in its revival of authors who have been forgotten and I enjoyed being introduced to many of them.

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Africanfuturism: An Anthology

Africanfuturism: An Anthology edited by Wole Talabi, Brittle Paper, 2020

Includes stories by Nnedi Okorafor, T.L. Huchu, Dilman Dila, Rafeeat Aliyu, Tlotlo Tsamaase, Mame Bougouma Diene, Mazi Nwonwu, and Derek Lubangakene.

Reviewed by Alexander Buckley

With a short introduction to African science fiction by Wole Talabi, himself a Nommo Award winning writer, Africanfuturism: An Anthology contains eight stories and boundless insights into what Africanfuturism actually is, what it should look and read like. The anthology is freely available from Brittle Paper, a literary magazine established in 2010 that champions upcoming African artists and writers. The stories invite the reader to delve into imaginative futures of African societies, all of them conjuring up a range of compelling ideas, some offering novel interpretations of dystopian ways of living. 

The anthology opens strong with a short, hospitable story by T.L. Huchu, a Zimbabwean writer, known for his debut novel The Hairdresser of Harare (2010) and his many award-nominated short stories. Huchu’s “Egoli”, written in the second person, details the life of an aged Shona woman living between the past and the future in her small village; her grandson is away working as a miner in space, meanwhile, this woman uses a smartphone and finds solace in the BBC World Service on the radio. The nostalgic inspection into the past is warm and balmy, contrasted with the introspective world of tomorrow that’s slowly encroaching, attempting to sever this woman from the life she tirelessly tries to hold on to. It’s beautiful. The writing is neat and immerses the reader in this woman’s life that seems so lonely and distant from everything around her. It’s one of the most interesting and developed stories in the anthology and is a fantastic introduction for anyone interested in Africanfuturism.


The second story is “Sunrise” by Nnedi Okorafor, whose definition of Africanfuturism, a term she coined, is featured at the beginning of the anthology. Okorafor’s “Sunrise begins with a famous Nigerian-American science fiction writer being harassed while trying to board a flight with her sister. It then shifts into a narrative about the erratic uncontrollable nature of the Artificial Intelligence on her phone and the spoilt visit to her uncle’s house. The story doesn’t seem to know which way it wants to go, and the writing doesn’t help the confused nature of the storyline. The part at the beginning, about Nnedi’s self-insert being harassed by ‘Ian Scott’ who struggles to pronounce her name correctly is strong enough to be a standalone story. Everything afterwards felt tacked on and a little needless.

Ugandan filmmaker and science fiction writer Dilman Dila’s “Yat Madit” tells the story of Amaro, whose ex-president father is released from prison. Her father visits his smart, tech savant daughter to seek advice about using the voter’s online avatars to get himself re-elected. Yat Madit is the hardware that hosts everyone’s avatar and fosters interconnectedness, the nature of which remains enigmatic. The worldbuilding is very compelling, inspiring many questions about what Yat Madit is and how it works. Yat Madit means ‘a big tree.’ There are hints that a stormy family drama is buried underneath the narrative layer, but it’s unable to emerge through the text. The father tries ludic ways to reconcile with Amaro, but the back-and-forth trial does not suffice to banish the shadow of his criminal past. The writing struggles to support the plausibility of attempts to resolve the emotional conflict between Amaro and her father. “Yat Madit”’s main strength is its science fiction novum and worldbuilding. There’s a whole future happening within the story and it would have been great to explore more of the history of the avatars. This is a case where the science-fictional ideas are more interesting and involving than the emotional story they are embedded in.  This is unfortunate because the characters want to do so much and be given the same treatment as the science that is being foretold. 

Mazi Chiagozie Nwonwu is co-founder of Omenana, an essential Nigerian-produced magazine dedicated to speculative fiction from Africa and the African diaspora. Nwonwu’s “Rainmaker” is about a young boy named Bama who must perform a Raindance to bring rain to the dry, dusty planet of Arid. “Rainmaker” is a fun, short adventure story with a simple premise. It begins with an exciting encounter with ‘dust devils’ as Bama and his friend Katma are heading to school. From there, the story doesn’t let go of its sense of adventure and vision. On Arid, it’s believed that anyone who stands up to a dust devil is granted a wish. The story is wholesome and earnest. A journey on this strange arid planet is filled with bright characters and an involving mythos. Mazi Nwonwu’s writing is clear and hospitable and he serves the planet and its inhabitants to us like a tasty, filling meal. 

Tlotlo Tsamaase is a Motswana writer of fiction, poetry and architectural criticism. Her work is featured in The Best of World SF (2021) edited by Lavie Tidhar, and appeared in Strange Horizons and the quarterly British magazine Wasafiri. Her story “Behind Our Irises” details the day in the life of a graphic designer working for a depressing corporate business to keep her life afloat after years of unemployment. This sinister company installs new technology into their employees, fitting holes into the back of their necks, draining them of their freedoms and exploiting them for profit. Although the company is based in and runs throughout Africa, one of the higher-ups is a “European man with a balding hairline, stocky fingers and a certain kind of confidence that intimidated me.” The various themes explored throughout the story are subtle and may not be so apparent on a first reading. Towards the end, the protagonist, against her will and quite suddenly, is forced to undergo ‘maintenance’ work on her ‘ports’. She is approached by “a man in blue coveralls that looked like a cross between a doctor and mechanic.” She tries to evade the procedure but finds she cannot move. She can’t even yell for help, and the man in blue coveralls nonchalantly takes what he came for then lets her go. This dystopian, sad, almost borderline horror short is well made and thought out. This story is a great addition to the anthology, reflecting on emerging issues in labour relationships between workers and corporations. 

Derek Lubangakene, whose work has appeared in Omenana and Strange Horizons, brings “Fort Kwame” to the anthology, named after the orbital city that suffers the consequences of a failed rebellion. Its protagonist, Jabari Asalur, “acknowledged his dread.” Fort Kwame, and the inhabitable planet it floats above, is a deep and detailed world, full of exciting science-fictional ideas and entertaining characters. Lubangakene’s exploration of this futuristic orbital city is quite an adventure. The workings of Jabari’s “thermskin” are particularly well imagined and tickle a certain sci-fi itch. “Fort Kwame” fits perfectly into the anthology. 

On her website, Rafeeat Aliyu’s describes “Fruit of the Calabash” as being “something I initially dreamed of, I recall hastily jotting down memories of the creepy dream before it faded”. In the story, Maseo fertilizes artificial wombs in her lab. The development of a fetus for the local senator doesn’t go as planned and she heeds the advice of a wise, judicious woman to help gain insight into the reason behind the fiasco. The plot develops with an urgent pace; elements of Maseo’s world are immersive and plausible, the characters are believable, the story feels like it could become a reality. It’s a delight to read and get lost in.  

Mame Bougouma Diene, whose novella Hell Freezes Over which was nominated for a Nommo Award, blends mysticism with science fiction in “Lekki Lekki”, the final story of the anthology. Huge trees contain “engines” that connect humans to a giant network of seemingly everything. Humanity had harmed nature, and now it must painfully adapt. This story conjures up interesting imagery for the mind and the story’s lyrical ecocritical otherworldliness is noteworthy. 

The anthology is a host to a range of wonders and imaginative worlds. Judging by what is contained within these digital pages, it’s regrettable that some of these writers have yet to become as widely read as their Western peers. This anthology is a brilliant introduction to Africanfuturism and hopefully its free PDF edition will attract new readers to the genre. I think it’s important that all serious fans of science fiction are conscious of the emerging talent in African science fiction. Publishers around the world should snap their stories quickly before they get beaten to it. 

Ruby by Nina Allan

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Titan have been publishing Allan’s work since they brought out an expanded edition of The Race in 2016. This was followed by The Rift in 2017 and an updated edition of The Silver Wind in 2019. Their latest offering from her is Ruby, which was originally published as Stardust: The Ruby Castle Stories in 2013. As that earlier title indicates, this book consists of a sequence of linked stories. At first, they seem to be very loosely linked––tied together only by fleeting references to the eponymous Ruby, a film star whose career ends when she is imprisoned for murder––but more connections become apparent to the reader in later stories.

Indeed, when I got to the end, I had to fight hard against an overwhelming urge to go back to the beginning again with my new knowledge and put all the events in the stories together into one coherent plotline. However, that would be the wrong reason to read these beautiful and entrancing stories again. Not only is there no overall temporal continuity but also, to the extent that these are horror stories, the horror lies in wait for those determined to keep religiously to the straight and the narrow. Morally these stories are ‘chaotic neutral’ and trying to impose order on them would at best be inviting frustration and at worst risking getting trapped in some maze-like time loop, as happens to several characters in these stories. Paradoxically, though, for those prepared to embrace the apparent unreason of time paradoxes and coincidences that unspool sinuously through these stories, potential nightmares turn into dreams of possibility.

Ruby by Nina Allan

For example, in ‘Laburnams’, Christine ‘had often wondered if it was possible to take a wrong turning and end up living a life that was not your own’ and there are lot of people in these stories trapped in lives that are not their own. In ‘Wreck of the Julia’, this condition is explicitly linked to the evasion and lying inherent to south London lower-middle-class suburbs such as Croydon and Sidcup, which are very similar to the one I grew up in. And you don’t get out of those lives by conforming to the moral parameters that structure and limit them. Therefore, escape is itself a traumatic experience that scars and is only overcome retrospectively by sensing the rightness of the new life. The protagonist of ‘Stardust’ feels ‘the change happen, a discernible click, as if a key had been twisted inside me’.

Such transformations also have little to do with free choice and that is what makes them doubly scary. One of the protagonists tries to make sense of his experiences through ‘dream science’ and ‘the idea of the subconscious as a crime writer’ throwing out as many red herrings as useful clues. But it is only by negotiating both the red herrings and the clues that he finds his way again. These stories are not merely tales of the unexpected or simple mysteries but a series of labyrinthine twists which simultaneously fold in and out on themselves to reveal unexpected perspectives and hidden views. The result of such an intricate weaving together of signs and wonders is a collection of stories that reads like a novel which you want to go on and on. So, while I didn’t immediately reread the stories, I would have been happy to have continued to lose myself within more of them for another thousand pages or so. Nevertheless, I didn’t end Ruby feeling unfulfilled because after thinking about it––and these stories do tend to embed themselves in your mind for a while––I realised that I could take the fluid mode of reading that the stories had seduced me into adopting and use it to read other stories and novels in productive ways. In this manner, Allan not only generates possibilities through her writing, but she also teaches her readers to generate possibilities through their reading.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work by John Danaher

Reviewed by Michael Pitts.

Danaher, John. Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work. Harvard UP, 2019. Hardcover. 248 pg. $99.95. ISBN 9780674984240.

Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work is crafted as a response to fears over an automated future in which humans are made obsolete by technological developments. Written by John Danaher, senior lecturer of law at the National University of Ireland, Galway, the text consists of two main sections, which cover automation and the possibility of a utopian future, respectively.

After outlining the scope and purpose of his research, in the first chapter Danaher forecasts the obsolescence of humankind in an automated world. But this is not as catastrophic as it may sound since, for Danaher, “Obsolescence is the process or condition of being no longer useful or used; it is not a state of nonexistence or death” (2). In the rest of the automation section, Danaher responds to two propositions: that automation in the workplace is both possible and desirable, and that automation outside of the workplace is potentially dangerous and its threats must therefore be mitigated.

After making his case for why automation should be conditionally embraced, in the second section Danaher turns to two possible, ‘improved’ societies with automation fundamental to their economies, the cyborg and virtual utopias. While the cyborg utopia enables humankind to remain valuable members of the economy, occupying the cognitive niche that has historically provided an initial evolutionary advantage to the species, Danaher posits that such a future will likely maintain the degradations of employment, enhance our dependency upon machines, and disrupt humanist values while, due to the technological advancements it requires, ensuring no worthy improvements to human wellbeing in the near future.

Following up this analysis of the cyborg polity, Automation and Utopia concludes with a presentation of what Danaher views as the ideal, improved society, the virtual utopia. This improved society, in which humankind ventures into the virtual world to enhance its flourishing, is presented by Danaher as an ideal goal towards which humankind may aim since, as the author posits, it will ensure human agency, pluralism, stability, a myriad of alternative utopias, and a meaningful connection to the non-virtual, real world. 

Pivotal to Danaher’s assessment of automation, and a possibly utopian future, are his views on labor and the avenue he identifies as optimal for human flourishing, the virtual utopia. For the purposes of his argument, he adopts a definition of work which he acknowledges as unusual and likely controversial, since it excludes “most domestic work (cleaning, cooking, childcare)” as well as “things like subsistence farming or slavery” (29). Defining work as “any activity (physical, cognitive, emotional etc.) performed in exchange for an economic reward, or in the ultimate hope of receiving an economic reward,” Danaher builds the case that obsolescence is almost certain and could result in as low as 10% or as high as 40% of the future population remaining employed (28). Such a development is framed as a positive result since work, he emphasizes, has a negative effect upon employees and improving it in the current economic milieu is, according to him, a more difficult route to take than shifting towards a virtual utopia. Specifically, Danaher argues that improving work, which often involves fissuring, precarity, colonization, classic collective action, domination, and distributive injustice is unlikely in our current system since it “would require reform of the basic rules of capitalism, some suppression or ban of widely used technologies as well as reform of the legal and social norms that apply to work” (83). Though this dismissal of the possibility of improving working conditions is short-sighted and ignores the likelihood that labor organizing will prove necessary as technological advances continue, this weakness of the text stands on its periphery. More important to Danaher’s vision of the future is his adoption of an approach that is interestingly more radical than such efforts to protect workers: the introduction of a universal basic income and the normalization of technological unemployment in current economic systems. 

Danaher envisions this radically different distribution of economic power as a salient feature unique to the virtual utopia. Danaher rejects the cyborg utopia, believing it will threaten the prospect of universal basic income and technological unemployment and ensure the continuation of work and the injustices endemic to capitalistic systems. In considering the virtual utopia, Danaher’s audience must consider the ethics and consequences of a nation in which utopian games and escape become a salient feature of its culture. This ideal society is marked by its focus upon virtual worlds as the mechanism by which human flourishing may take place. By venturing into simulations that are shaped to satisfy the desires and needs of individual users, it avoids the problems of a single utopian ideal that must be enforced upon all citizens. It can therefore, as Danaher explains, “allow for the highest expressions of human agency, virtue, and talent… and the most stable and pluralistic understanding of the ideal society” (270). 

Yet as with the cyborg utopia, the virtual utopia is plagued with ethical complications. The question of what actions are permissible in such a simulated environment is closely related to the ethical considerations surrounding cyborgs and artificial intelligence. In very briefly confronting this topic, Danaher asserts that the same moral constraints that shape human interactions in daily life will impact those occupying the virtual world. He supports this argument by pointing out that some of the characters inhabiting the simulation will be operated by human players and that interactions with such players will have ethical dimensions. In addition, he asserts that other actions may be deemed intrinsically immoral even without a corresponding ‘real-life’ consequence.  Danaher asserts that, though there will be some moral frameworks unique to the virtual utopia, there will be no major alteration to human ethics. The virtual utopia, he claims, is therefore a reasonable goal for the post-work society since it enables human flourishing and protects values such as individualism and humanism.

Danaher is also keen to emphasize that “the distinction between the virtual and the real is fluid” (229). He rejects the “stereotypical” science fictional view of virtual reality, as something that is only produced within immersive technological simulations, like the Matrix or Star Trek’s Holodeck. On the other hand, he also rejects the “counterintuitive” view that everything humans experience is virtual reality in that our reality is constructed through language and culture. Instead, Danaher offers a middle position. Some things may be more virtual than others, but nothing is wholly virtual or wholly real. He sees virtual utopia as being filled with emotionally and morally meaningful interactions, but in the context of relatively inconsequential stakes (rather than survival, or struggle for hegemony). A Holodeck-style simulation is only one of many ways this could be accomplished. 

Automation and Utopia delves significantly into the topic of possible futures at the intersection of ethics, technology, and humanism. It is a valuable resource for scholars, students, and laypeople engaged with conversations surrounding the advancement of automation in the 21st-century, its impact upon economics and workers, and optimal approaches to accommodating such new technologies through the advent of a post-work society. The work continues discussions at the intersection of technology and labor, but necessitates broader considerations related to the virtual utopia Danaher proposes. Namely, it does not convincingly explain how virtual utopia will avoid the ethical pitfalls outlined in relation to the cyborg utopia. It also does not thoroughly discuss how such simulations may be safeguarded from economic exploitation at the hands of those owning or operating these systems, or address the potential for intersectional inequalities. Finally, Danaher does not comprehensively discuss how such escapism and the further minimization of human interaction in the natural world may impact climate and the environment. Though it is difficult to accurately predict, estimations of both the ecological and psychological effects of a society in which the main mechanism of human interaction is not within nature but instead within a virtual world are vital to identifying optimal utopian aims.

Overall, Automation and Utopia productively dives into the topics of technological advancement and labor policy, proposes thought-provoking socioeconomic policies related to the challenges of automation, and necessitates further discussions concerning ‘the ideal society,’ its connection to technology, and the impact it may have upon human psychology and the environment. 

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“Do we want that?” Mackenzie Jorgensen interviews Eli Lee

Mackenzie Jorgensen is a Computer Science doctoral researcher working on the social and ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence. We invited Mackenzie to chat with novelist Eli Lee about her debut, A Strange and Brilliant Light (Jo Fletcher, 2021), and representations of AI and automation in speculative fiction. Should we fear or embrace the “rise of the robots”? Or perhaps the robots rose a long time ago, or perhaps that whole paradigm is mistaken? How might AI and automation impact the future of work? What would it mean for emotional work to be automated? How do human and machine stories intersect and blur?

This is part one of two.

A Strange and Brilliant Light, By Eli Lee

Hi Eli, I’m really excited to talk to you today. I gave myself plenty of time to read A Strange and Brilliant Light, but I ended up going through it super quickly, because I enjoyed it so much.

Oh, thank you! 

So I was curious – what made you decide to showcase three women’s stories?

Well, the genesis of the three stories was unexpected even to me. When I started, I wanted to write about a pair of best friends whose lives go in different directions. That’s based on my own relationship with my best friend, who became an incredible political activist whilst I just sat around and watched TV and read books. So that was the real kernel.

But as I wrote, it felt like something was missing. Lal and Rose came to me immediately – Rose was very passionate and active in the world whereas Lal had some of my own flaws – she was bossy, ambitious, and somewhat selfish.

But the dynamic needed a third person who was a contrast to both – and that’s when Lal’s sister Janetta came in. She works in AI, and she’s driven by her own hopes and fears. Once I had those three characters, it felt complete.

Did you see parts of yourself in Lal?

I did. I felt she was a good vehicle for the parts of me I’m less proud of – so she’s a bit selfish and insecure, and she feels belittled by her older sister, stuck in her shadow and ignored, but she’s still a decent person. She wants to work to make money for her family, but she’s just more … petty!

Got it!

And then I put what I would aspire to be in Janetta. Janetta’s very self-sufficient. She’s dedicated to her work and pure of heart. She has insecurities and flaws like the rest of us, but she always works for the greater good. So I kind of separated some of my worst qualities, and the qualities I wish I had, and put them in those two.

And you made them sisters, which works well in that sense.

I’ve got two brothers, but I don’t have a sister. Have you?

No, I have a younger brother.

I mean, this is the thing. Sibling relationships can be so gendered. I wanted to investigate what it’s like if there’s an older sister who is very successful and leaping ahead academically, and then you’re the younger sister in that dynamic. What’s for you? How do you stand out – how are you different, or memorable? So that was Lal.

“I kind of separated some of my worst qualities, and the qualities I wish I had, and put them in those two.”

How far into the future did you kind of picture the novel to be?

One of the get-outs of setting it in an alternate universe is that you don’t have to specify, “This is ten years in the future,” or, “This is fifteen years in the future.” I could choose the kind of technology that fit with the plot. They’re not mind-reading, they’re using mobile phones.

To me, this says it’s not that far in the future? Eight or ten years, perhaps. I’d be interested to hear what you think, as an AI researcher, about when it could plausibly be set? When that early, deep automation of jobs is filtering through?

Eight to ten years, yeah. End of the 2020s.

Then again, part of me thinks maybe that’s too soon! You know when you watch Back to the Future II, and there’s a flying car. It’s set in 2015. We all watched it in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, and there was this sense that 2015 would look futuristic like that. Now we’re past that date, and the changes don’t seem that drastic.

Right.

So in ten years’ time, maybe things will look the same as they do now? Maybe AI will still be in our lives, but in a way that’s similar to what it is now – essentially under the surface and hidden. Ubiquitous, but hidden. The robots still won’t be serving us coffee! So I’m willing to be proved completely wrong with my timeframe.

I think you’re good! I feel like oftentimes AI is portrayed, especially in media and films, as taking over everything in the very near future. It’s often a dystopian presentation. But actual AIs right now, they’re always just good at one thing. They’re very task-specific. We don’t really have anything like what Janetta was trying to work on, like emotional AI.

Exactly.

And there’s another question: do we want that? Because I feel like emotion is something that makes us human. At the end of the day, AI and tech are a bunch of zeros and ones. You can’t really instill that with real human emotion and experiences, in my opinion. There are scientists out there who disagree though.

I should say that, in terms of eight to ten years, I’m not talking about emotional intelligence and AI. Consciousness is way off, if it ever will happen. I think probably it won’t. But in terms of AI and automation …

Automation, yeah. No, definitely.

My friend works for an AI start-up. He often looks at stuff in my novel, and says, “What the … This is crazy!” And I say, “I know! It’s not meant to be real!” When you watch Ex Machina or Her, there’s a suspension of disbelief. But I guess as an AI researcher it must be even harder, not to just say, “Come on, come on now. That’s not going to happen!”

“Maybe AI will still be in our lives, but in a way that’s similar to what it is nowー essentially under the surface and hidden. Ubiquitous, but hidden.”

And that question of whether AI can be human is just such a long-running, fascinating topic, isn’t it? We just can’t let go of it. That uncanny other self, reflected in an AI.

Yeah, definitely. I agree with you that I can see automation coming more into play in the near future, especially with big companies like Amazon. Which is scary, because people do rely on those big corporations for jobs. We’ve seen recently that unionizing doesn’t necessarily work in those scenarios. That’s one reason Rose’s character is very interesting to me. She explores the future of social justice activism, in a near-future world increasingly dominated by automation.

I knew that you can’t talk about automation without talking about Universal Basic Income. But I didn’t want someone who straight out of the gate was like, “You guys, UBI: I’m going to sort it out.” I wanted to make sure that Rose’s activism wasn’t disconnected from the rest of her life.

So much of the novel is about these three women in their early twenties, figuring out who they are, especially who they are in their relationships. With Rose, an important part of this is how she relates to men of power, or men who have power. There’s her father, her brother, and this other guy Alek, and initially she’s unable to get out from under them.

And so she needed to come into her own power. So I thought, Rose is going to be this activist, but she’s also going to be not sure of herself initially. So a lot of it was their inner struggles, intersecting with those larger economic, social, political, or technological stories.

There was a quote I made note of. ‘Alek said, “True leisure, true creativity and true freedom are within our reach for the first time in human history. And so we must set up source gain and welcome the auts.”’ This seemed quite ironic to me because relinquishing more control of the world could seem like the opposite of freedom. And Rose did realize this as time went on, which was cool to see, as she was learning and growing. 

So Alek was with these other two academics at that point in the novel. Alek’s initial point of view is: “Auts are bad, AIs are bad. We need to just destroy this stuff.” But then when these two guys come along, one of them mentions post-work utopias. John Maynard Keynes wrote about something similar in the 1930s, an essay called ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, and Herbert Marcus wrote Eros and Civilisation in the 1950s, and there has been lots of writing about post-work more recently. 

Maybe machines can do everything, and then you can sit around and play all day, and not have to do things you don’t want to. This idea floats past Alek this evening, and suddenly he’s like, “Oh, wait! Yeah, we can just be free, because auts will do the boring stuff!” 

But that’s obviously not a realistic suggestion, because if you take it a step further, like Rose does, the question is, “Who owns those auts?” Well, if it’s the corporations, that’s not freedom. So that brings Alek back to his original idea: we need source gain. We need some kind of UBI. So in that moment when he talks about post-work leisure, he’s speculating. He’s not thinking about what’s necessary now.

Can you see a world where AI grows in importance alongside human creativity and freedom? Or are they opposing forces?

In a post-work scenario, the AIs are doing the grunt work, doing the kind of cleaning and tidying, and fixing things, and all the behind-the-scenes organisational work, so humans can play and fulfil ourselves. So that’s what Alek would mean by welcoming the auts, I think. But do you mean in terms of AI more as an equal?

I guess, or at least AI growing in social importance, and taking on more and more roles?

The way Alek envisions AI, in that moment, they would be this kind of sub-caste. They’d work away in the background, and you wouldn’t need to worry about them because they wouldn’t be conscious. But I think for us, even without AI consciousness, this could still be a very unsettling and unnerving vision.

We’re already seeing that when AI creeps into more and more areas of life, that ideal of true leisure and creativity gets compromised. You’re surrounded by stuff that’s monitoring you, surveilling you, collecting and analysing your data, perhaps even filtering your reality, and steering you in various ways. It’s almost like the more AI we have, the more inhibited we might feel.

Right, and the more potential problems we might face. On the surveillance point, there’s that moment where Janetta and Taly discuss helping the government with docile spy dogs —

This is one of my cringe moments. I read it now and think, “Spy dogs? What?”

Well Boston Dynamics has a robotic dog. The New York City Police Department had a test run, and there was a huge backlash. So they said, “Okay, actually, no. We are not going to use this.” But about Janetta and Taly’s conversation, I was curious: were you critiquing how governments and the private sector collaborate over surveillance? How do you feel about that? 

Attitudes about surveillance are deeply personal. I’ve got one friend who just does not care about his privacy – he’ll happily give all his data to everything and everyone. It’s not because he believes that it might make society better; he just doesn’t care. I suspect he’s not alone in that.

“We’re already seeing that when AI creeps into more and more areas of life, that ideal of true leisure and creativity gets compromised. You’re surrounded by stuff that’s monitoring you, surveilling you …”

The bird on the front of the novel, illustrated by Sinjin Li, is a CCTV bird. If you look closely, it’s got a little robot-y eye. Taly’s company, Mutants, is all about making stuff that looks friendly and cutesy, but it’s actually spying on you.

Personally, I think we should be very scared about surveillance. And not just visual surveillance, but also the amount of data that we’re giving up to companies more generally. So yes, the book definitely includes a critique of DARPA and agencies like that, who are using AI to further cement their military power.

Early in the book, there’s a humanoid robot that looks like Lal. I wondered if you could talk about that choice? It felt like it might be symbolic of Lal’s almost robotic existence at that point.

That’s a fantastic interpretation of it! Even my editor asked me why I did that. Basically, I just wanted one of the main characters to get the experience of the uncanny valley. It was nothing more than that – a moment of AI spookiness.

It definitely was.

I wanted Lal to have that experience of gazing at a factory produced version of herself.

Another reason for Lal to have that experience is that she hasn’t quite figured out how she feels about the auts. She wants to be part of that world, so this is saying: “Here are versions of you who are part of that world … but they’re just auts. They’re just nothing. They’re also praised and loved by everyone. But they’re still soulless machines. Do you really want to be a soulless machine, Lal?” So you’re right, it does touch on the idea that she becomes a bit of a soulless machine.

Okay.

People ask about that moment, and whether it’s a clue to a big conspiracy. But it’s not there for plot reasons. It’s more about Lal herself, and about the social experience of sharing a world with these uncanny others.

It was an intriguing thing to include early in the novel.

Well, I learned a lot about novel plotting during the writing of this book. And there are some things I’d probably change, because I think that ended up feeling like a red herring.

Lal goes to Tekna and gets absorbed into that world. She expects it’s going to be this shimmering, exciting experience. But actually it’s quite dreary.

Dhont is like an industrial estate. The Tekna Tower is where all the glamour happens, where Taly works, and where the conferences are. Lal sees that and she thinks, “That’s where I’m going to work! That’s where it’s going to happen for me!” 

And then she’s deposited in the backend of nowhere instead. Dhont is meant to imply precarity and being low down on the chain at Tekna; it’s the opposite of the Tekna Tower.

Dhont has also been denuded of people, because of the automation. I don’t know if you saw the Richard Ayoade film, The Double?

I haven’t.

It’s based on a Dostoyevsky novella, I think. Jesse Eisenberg goes to work at this very grim, dystopian factory. But after a while, he’s kind of struggling. Then there’s a double, like another version of him that turns up and aces everything. The film is about their conflict. It’s really good, and the surroundings are very grim and derelict. So I had that industrial dystopian feel in mind. With automation on the rise, and Lal fighting for her survival, I wanted her to realise that working for a glamorous company might not be so glamorous after all. Work in an Amazon warehouse is horrible. So I wanted to pull the rug out from under her.

And she could see the Tower from afar.

From her sad little room!

She does work her way up. But it doesn’t feel like she’s happy with that.

All that glitters isn’t gold. When she does get promoted, she’s aware that there’s something lurking underneath. Something’s not right. She thinks, “Well, okay. This is great, and I’ve got loads of money, loads of time. But things are a bit off…” But then, she’s also competitive, especially with her sister, so she also wants to believe everything’s great. I wanted capitalism to pull her in with all its glories, and then wring her dry.

Yes, it definitely did. At the end, we don’t quite know for sure what she decided. I got the impression she made the right decision.

I’m glad you think she made the right decision. 


Keep your surveillance apparatus peeled for part II, coming soon.


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The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Reviewed by Anne F. Wilson. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

“Even worthless things can become valuable once they become rare. This is the grand lesson of my life”.

Cara is a survivor. Literally. She is a traverser between 380 alternate worlds, each fractionally different from the next. But she can only travel to worlds where her alternate has already died. Only 8 of the 380 still house living versions of her. All the others have died of natural or unnatural causes. Illness, neglect, abuse, murder. This is because she is a poor child from the deprived area of Ashtown, not a protected citizen of the neighbouring city of Wiley. 

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Cara is employed by the Eldridge Institute, headed by the charismatic Adam Bosch. Alone of his alternates, Bosch discovered the technology for travelling between the worlds. Cara’s job is data mining on the different worlds. What needs to be changed to achieve a particular effect? Go to the world where it has changed. What is going to happen in the future? Go to a world which is slightly ahead in development. Because she is so rare she is valuable, in that the Institute doesn’t have to employ so many other traversers. But her time is running out, as the Institute is expecting an imminent breakthrough that will make traversers redundant.

But Cara has secrets. She isn’t supposed to bring back trophies from her visits to other worlds, but she does. She isn’t supposed to interact with the inhabitants of those worlds, or get involved in their local disputes, but she does. And it’s from these interactions with the alternates of people in her own world, with lives and relationships slightly shifted, that she starts to put together a very different picture of what is happening on her own world, and what Adam Bosch really wants.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It’s full-on science fiction, exploring that most fundamental question: “What might be changed?” Cara is a thoroughly believable character: bolshy, rough-edged, insecure. She is brutalised by her upbringing, but she’s still human. And in a world where merely surviving is the main aim, or (in Wiley), maintaining or improving one’s position, she is willing to act to improve things. 

The space between worlds isn’t just the space between the 380 worlds that Cara traverses, it’s also the space between Wiley, where she maintains a precarious existence, and Ashtown, her birthplace. It is no coincidence that the original inhabitants of Wiley are pale-skinned and fair-haired, and the Ashtowners are black and brown. “People brought for labor, or come for refuge, or who were here before the first neoliberal surveyed this land and thought to build a paradise”. It’s a dystopia, and in most of the alternate worlds things are getting worse, the gap widening between the privileged in Wiley and those outside, who are prey to brutal gangs and suffer the effects of lack of money, of healthcare, of opportunities. 

Johnson is that most excellent of things, a storyteller. I was caught up in the action and kept reading to find out what happens next. The surprises keep coming. The tight focus on Cara’s viewpoint means that the author can slide in little bits of information that turn out to be significant later. It’s always great to read a novel where what’s next is completely unexpected, and yet when it has happened you think: yes, that fits.

I liked the way that Cara develops as a character. She begins the novel as someone who is defensive and belligerent, scrambling not to lose her hard-won place in Wiley. Once she begins to find out the rules that govern her existence, Cara discovers that she can make choices, and unsurprisingly these lead her and others into danger. It is only by using the ingrained knowledge from her harsh upbringing outside Wiley that she has a chance of surviving and saving those that she cares for.

Copyright Anne F. Wilson.

Radio Life by Derek B. Miller

Reviewed by Andy Sawyer. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Our world collapsed in chaos and war at the end of the 21st century after a solar flare disrupted information networks. Now, the Commonwealth, devoted to rescuing knowledge from the Gone World, is sending out expeditions and creating an Archive. Fifty years ago, Lilly’s discovery of the “Harrington Box” inspired a renaissance based upon the collection of books and the “Trivial Pursuits” set it contained. Lilly is now Chief Engineer of the Commonwealth, whose headquarters is a sports centre built for the Olympics. One of her projects is rebuilding technologies including a radio, on which voices from elsewhere were heard until it ceased to work. A new fuse has been found by a pair of scavengers and given to Lilly. But a tribe known as the Keepers are threatening the networks of Raiders and Explorers and Runners, and the Commonwealth itself. Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old Elimisha, an Archive Runner, is pursued into a building which collapses, leaving her injured and unable to escape – but in a room containing an “artificial intelligence entity” which identifies itself as a Librarian . . . and a radio.

When Elimisha’s voice is received by Lilly’s radio, another Runner, Allesandra, is sent to rescue her. Her mission is critical, because it is suspected that Elimisha has found the secret of the Ancients’ success – the Internet.

Radio Life

The joke here – it rapidly becomes clear that Lilly etc. don’t actually know what the Internet is – is certainly one of the reasons to read the book: running through it is a vein of humour which counterpoints the bleak post-apocalypse scenario without undermining a serious core: an examination of the nature and purpose of knowledge. Miller has acknowledged the influence of Walter M. Miller’s (no relation) A Canticle for Leibowitz in Radio Life. In some ways he has written a parallel to – or even a parody of – the earlier classic. (There is even a religious community, in which the telling of another joke, an old and hoary music-hall item, somehow underlines the story’s essence.) Like Leibowitz, which itself reveals a dark, even despairing joke at its core, Radio Life is about regaining knowledge, even at the cost of not fully understanding the extent and implications of that knowledge. Derek Miller distributes the hazy search for uncovering the history of this precarious society among a number of interestingly-imagined characters: Lilly, Allesandra and Elimisha, but also Henry (Henrietta) and Graham, (Allesandra’s parents), and Birch, the “Master of the Order of Silence” (one of the interesting things about the Commonwealth is the complicated web of organisations, networks and rivalries within it).

For a while, this is a standard if well-imagined and told tale of post-Apocalypse recovery. But as the complexities within the Commonwealth and its immediate history become apparent, things get deeper. A confrontation between Graham, captured by the Keepers, and the Keeper leader makes us face the question begged by too many of these fictions: are they right to want to regain the knowledge of the past? During their conversation we learn why the Keepers are called the Keepers, and what they want to keep. This is not necessarily a debate between right and wrong. The Ancients had wonderful technology. (The generic term for material scavenged and brought back is telling: “shinies”). One of the delightful “histories” of the pre-catastrophe decades uncovered by Elimisha and Allesandra is the up-until-then undiscovered treasure trove of recorded music. But the legacy of previous days also includes war, genocide, slavery, racism: “So many categories of people, all attacking other categories”. The Ancients did “awful things to each other”. Should those memories be brought back, risking shame and anger and revenge?

Or could the world be rebuilt, better? Walter M. Miller’s theology seemed to suggest not. His namesake, possibly more secular, seems to prefer otherwise. Radio Life rather slips, at the end, into hand-waving improvement, but the arguments are worth confronting.

Copyright Andy Sawyer. All rights reserved.