Hugo Award nominee S.B. Divya (Runtime) is back with Machinehood, an action-packed sci-fi thriller about artificial intelligence, sentience, and labor rights in the near future. The question of our time is what will happen to the world when the first artificially intelligent machine expresses human emotion, and what that means not only for our future, but our very soul. Dressed up in a high-stakes thrill ride, Machinehood looks to answer just that with a thought provoking narrative designed to question whose right is it to exist, and can that right be taken away.
Here’s the summary…
Welga Ramirez, executive bodyguard and ex-special forces, is about to retire early when her client is killed in front of her. It’s 2095 and people don’t usually die from violence. Humanity is entirely dependent on pills that not only help them stay alive, but allow them to compete with artificial intelligence in an increasingly competitive gig economy. Daily doses protect against designer diseases, flow enhances focus, zips and buffs enhance physical strength and speed, and juvers speed the healing process.
All that changes when Welga’s client is killed by The Machinehood, a new and mysterious terrorist group that has simultaneously attacked several major pill funders. The Machinehood operatives seem to be part human, part machine, something the world has never seen. They issue an ultimatum: stop all pill production in one week.
Global panic ensues as pill production slows and many become ill. Thousands destroy their bots in fear of a strong AI takeover. But the US government believes the Machinehood is a cover for an old enemy. One that Welga is uniquely qualified to fight.
Welga, determined to take down the Machinehood, is pulled back into intelligence work by the government that betrayed her. But who are the Machinehood and what do they really want?
A thrilling and thought-provoking novel that asks: if we won’t see machines as human, will we instead see humans as machines?
I’ve been fascinated with human level machine intelligence for quite some time. I’ve read many books on the subject from various experts whose opinions range from it’s the end of days, to the dawn of a new day. We don’t yet have the answer to the question, “Will artificial general intelligence be good or bad for humanity?” because it doesn’t exist yet. And most experts agree, while it’s an important discussion, we are decades away from anything that would remotely resemble AGI, let alone a singularity.
It’s because of this I’m always excited to read a well conceived sci-fi book that deals with these issues, and why I was particularly excited to read Machinehood by author S.B. Divya, herself an electrical engineer who has worked in pattern recognition and machine intelligence. So, when I read the short summary, which states that Machinehood is a “science fiction thriller about artificial intelligence, sentience, and labor rights in a near future dominated by the gig economy.” I was in right away. And having previously read Runtime, I knew S.B. had the ability to combine tech heavy composition with a compelling narrative, in other words, my confidence was high.
The first thing you’ll pick up on, almost right away, is that this is not a light read, it’s wordy, it’s dense, and it doesn’t hold back on the techno-bibble-babble. But, if you remain committed, your brain will adjust, and you’ll be fine the rest of the way. It’s no different than any speculative or fantasy story that has created a unique culture or language. Once you learn it, you’re good.
Like the summary states, it is the year 2095 and while many things have changed and this version of Earth may seem unrecognizable to some, many things have stayed the same. These future people grapple with many of the same socio-economic and philosophical life questions we do today, and for most, life is still just about the banality of day-to-day existence. It’s a gig economy on steroids where a steady paycheck is like winning the lottery for many, not unlike the current state of things for the world’s labor force.
The big difference, and the running plot of the book, is that technology is more advanced and that includes robotics, human augmentation, and machine learning. All these new toys that are supposed to make life easier for humans and even compete with machines in some respects, come with a hornet’s nest type of warning label. For most, gone is the value in a hard day’s work or the simple pleasures of say cooking a meal, or even cleaning. Also, privacy is predominantly a thing of the past as most of society is under 24-7 surveillance thanks to all sorts of drone type thingy’s flying around everywhere. This is a clever premise where intrusion is tied to monetary success, or “tips”, where you can earn money for doing just about anything.
This all sounds great right? Sybaritic even? Not so fast!
Historically, where loss of control, self-worth, and self-determination enter the picture, so to does ignorance, self-righteousness, and fear. This is as complicated as it sounds and is as fraught with peril as you might expect. Because anytime you have an AI/philosophically laden story you’re bound to get a heavy dose of social commentary, and it usually skews dire, it’s just the way it is. The point being these ARE the conversations happening right now at various AI thinktanks around the world. Yes, examining the exponential upsides advanced machine learning could have for our world, but never forgetting to be prepared if/when it goes full Skynet.
This is the balance S.B. looks to examine and explore here, and she’s crafted a story so tight, that it feels akin to a powder keg ready to go off at any moment. In fact, this thing is so finely balanced, tipping it in either direction every so slightly feels like the match will be lit.
As the summary states, the books main character, Welga Ramirez, who is looking to retire at the ripe old age of 35, gets more than she bargained for with only months to go…
“All that changes when Welga’s client is killed by The Machinehood, a new and mysterious terrorist group that has simultaneously attacked several major pill funders. The Machinehood operatives seem to be part human, part machine, something the world has never seen. They issue an ultimatum: stop all pill production in one week.”
This Machinehood is organized, well funded, and seems intent on getting the world to understand that once you recognize one form of oppression, you should be able to recognize the rest. Their mandate is clearly laid out in a Machinehood Manifesto, 32 declarations that are presented as epigraphs throughout the book. Think of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics but if they had been written by a machine with human level intelligence and who was familiar with the atrocities spread throughout human history.
And that is one of big mystery’s Welga must figure out and consumes most of this story, who or what is the Machinehood? Their insistence on machine equality conflicts with their wanting all production on robotics to stop. But Welga is more than up to the challenge and gets a lot of help from both current, and former associates. That is until things get even weirder than Welga or the US government thought possible.
And of course, anytime you have a conversation about human’s never-ending desire to stoke their God complex, religion is its bedfellow. Machinehood presents us a few options in that regard, favoring neo-Buddhism for this narrative as it’s the rule of thumb up at the Eko-Yi space station, ran by the enigmatic Ao Tara. Following the Four Noble Truths, Buddha’s basic teachings meant to liberate us from suffering, the station practices a sort of Buddhist Socialism, meant to offset suffering by removing its main causes through action. Sounds nice.
Ao Tara’s hope is that this way of life will inspire enough humans on earth so that they will see the errors of the past as nothing more than that, mistakes made by a bygone era full of egoism and haste. For her part, Ao Tara is a fantastic character who the more you learn about, the more interesting she becomes. Of all the characters in this book, hers is the most target rich as far as more story to tell.
So, using a “nothing is at it seems” approach, slowly but surely, S.B. puts Welga, her family, and her team through their many paces, uncovering a little bit more about The Machinehood each step of the way. There are bigger forces at work as it turns out, but we’ll leave that where it is for now.
By design and purpose, Welga gets the flashy parts, she’s that side of this coin, she’s the books main character, and she’s good at it. She possesses those intangibles which are integral to being a good hero. But every hero needs help, people who don’t always get the attention they deserve, or want. And so, for my money, I’ll take Nithya’s quiet resolve and strength all day long. Not to mention, she’s kind of a genius, and I’m devotedly attracted to her “not going to take any shit from her husband” level of skill. She’s great and her chapters provided the balance this story really needed.
This techno-thriller is full of espionage, mystery, and action, has a substantial list of mostly well thought out characters, and challenges us with enough emotional weight to keep you invested. All these parameters converge to present the reader with one critical question.
You see, S.B. does a smart thing in this book, in a not so furtive way, she populates the story with easy to point out suppositions that all help bring the big question into focus. An example, the essential question this book is asking comes courtesy of Oscar “Papa” Ramirez who offers this to Welga, “Pretty soon the bots are gonna complain, too, right?”
Is there a more majestically simple yet profoundly complicated question to be asked in this day and age? Isn’t that the question of our time? What will happen to the world, to the universe, when the first AI expresses anything, even if it’s a complaint, and it’s revealed to the public? Call it the singularity, call it whatever you want, we, as a species will be forever changed at that point.
This is where the story earns a slight negative score, as the characters aren’t the most engaging aspect of this book, the questions raised are. And by the books end I believe S.B. does a helluva job answering some of those questions, or as much as can be answered at this point in our exploration of technology. So, because of that, I would say the book definitely leans more towards science, and less so towards fiction, and the result of that will be a sometimes unengaging read for some.
The bottom line is this, if Artificial Intelligence, in the general sense that it exists and philosophical debates are still essential reading, then this book is absolutely for you. And what’s great is that I use the term “fiction” here very loosely, as a very large chunk of the tech in this story is either already in use, or highly plausibly in use by someone, somewhere. You know, the shadow governments?
Like I said, S.B. definitely finds that sweet spot of technological bibble-babble and enthralling entertainment. And Machinehood, in spite of itself sometimes and its own cautionary tale aesthetic, actually ends on a note of optimism, something we should never get enough of.
Machinehood is out now, to order a copy today, click one of the links below!