Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Machinehood by S.B. Divya

Machinehood, S.B. Divya (Saga 978-1-9821-4806-5, $27.00, 416pp, hc) March 2021.

S.B. Divya’s first novel Machinehood is a good argument for why it’s important to understand the history of SF, and an equally good argument for why you don’t need to bother with the history of SF at all. Its central conceit – an apparent terrorist organization seek­ing the liberation of all forms of intelligence, ar­tificial and otherwise – carries clear echoes that go all the way back to Čapek’s R.U.R. (which had its stage premiere just over a century ago, in January 1921). The excerpts from the “Machine­hood Manifesto” that provide epigraphs to many of Divya’s chapters could easily have been docu­ments from Čapek’s robot revolution, or any number of robot and AI revolts since. “No form of intelligence may own another,” they proclaim, following up with chunks of exposition that not only fill in important bits of Divya’s backstory but capture with precision the droning, didactic tone of manifesto-speak everywhere. From that perspective, Machinehood deliberately works its variations on a classic and ubiquitous SF theme, and it can be read as another updating of that theme in terms of current technology and AI theory.

From another perspective, Machinehood reads like something entirely new. SF doesn’t just recycle familiar themes; it re-invents them from the perspectives of the social and economic anxieties of its age. If 1920s robots were about the exploitation of labor by capital, and 1950s robots were about displacing human workers, Divya’s Machinehood touches upon both, but from a new angle. The liberation movement – involving bots, AIs, bot-human-AI amalgams called Dakini, and even animals – is essentially the first machine uprising of the gig economy. At some point between now and 2095, when the novel takes place, corporate hegemony breaks down, individuals come to depend more and more on gigs (swarms of microdrone cameras are everywhere, and everyone seems to have an online tip-jar), as AIs and bots increasingly displace workers from traditional jobs. In order to keep competitive, workers depend on a variety of “pills,” nanotech supplements that can speed up reactions, increase strength, improve concen­tration, and even repair physical damage to the body. The question of whether smart metals can be successfully integrated with organic bodies is an important plot point, and the most pointed question Divya asks is not the old saw of whether AIs are superior to people, but rather whether there’s any real difference in the long run.

All this is presented principally through the lives of two sisters-in-law. Welga, a former biogeneticist and special forces “Raider” who now works as a “shield” for a private security firm, gets most of the violent action sequences and the cool, weaponized outfits, while Nithya, her brother’s wife and a researcher for a tech company, faces more mundane challenges such as a tight family budget, a daughter who needs to log into her classroom from home (!), and an unplanned pregnancy. (For all its apocalyptic hazards, some of the most unnerving aspects of Divya’s future are the notions that, 75 years from now, the state of Arizona still requires a husband’s consent for an abortion, that con­servative Catholicism hasn’t budged an inch, and that caste-like casual racism persists in India.) The pills that everyone depends on are backed by wealthy “pill funders,” essentially speculators who amass considerable influence and wealth. When one such pill funder, a client of Welga’s, is murdered on her watch, credit is claimed by an almost untraceable group calling itself the Machinehood, which threatens a more catastrophic global action unless all pill and drug production is shut down. In trying to track down both the source of the Machinehood and the cause of the unpredictable spasms that Welga has begun suffering, possibly as a result of her pills, Nithya begins piecing together a mystery involving a lawyer who disappeared years ear­lier, a space colony which has recently declared independence from its mother countries of China and India, and even a sort of posthuman religion called neo-Buddhism.

There’s a great deal going on in Machinehood, from Divya’s sophisticated critique of a post-pri­vacy gig economy to her evident expertise in AI systems, “weak AI” digital assistants, nanotech, and prosthetic body modifications. Individually, none of the tech extrapolations are particularly new, and Divya on occasion lapses into clichéd dialogue (“this is so much bigger than us”), but the economy she describes is sharply imagined and convincingly detailed, and she artfully bal­ances the cybertech thriller chapters involving Welga and the more character-oriented narrative of Nithya and her family, eventually weaving them together in a conclusion both suspenseful and ingenious, if a bit idealistic given the prob­lems and complexities she’s already saddled us with. But then, idealism might be something we need a bit more of these days.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the February 2021 issue of Locus.

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