For anyone who has purchased a pair of shoes online, only to be immediately pursued across the Internet by enthusiastic algorithms exclaiming that we will love exactly the same pair of shoes (which is, technically speaking, true), the globe-spanning future of 2095 that “Machinehood” presents through the eyes of two women caught in its web feels disconcertingly logical.
From the very first page, “Machinehood,” the debut science fiction novel from Nebula- and Hugo-award nominated machine intelligence specialist and biomedical engineer S.B. Divya, achieves what the very best science fiction aspires to — it establishes our future by making it relatable, plausible, and infinitely strange at the same time. That “Machinehood” goes on to upend long-established laws of robotics, question longstanding political machinations, establish a credible voyeurism-based sub-economy, and take us on a thrilling who-done-it through the advent of the singularity are only a few of the novel's accomplishments. “Machinehood” also introduces us to the plight of humans caught within a future where everything is faster, better, and smarter — everything except humans.
We enter the future with sisters-in-law Welga Ramírez, a bodyguard and PR specialist (they are the same thing in 2095), and Nithya, a biomedical programmer and contractor. Through their points of view, we see firsthand an intertwined, generational struggle centered around keeping up with the future while overcoming past mistakes. From an overclocked gig economy to wearable and implanted technology and drugs that help humans heal, think, and move faster, everything in Welga and Nithya's world is geared towards achieving the Next Big Thing. In this endless chase, the two women are burning out, even as the world around them demands more than ever.
(Even as I typed that sentence, my stress levels rose. Ok. Disconcertingly familiar, check.)
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When a mysterious organization called The Machinehood sends a message — in the form of one murder and one manifesto — it is an announcement to the world that things must change. In doing so, both the organization and the novel rewire Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics (the book begins with three selected demands from the Machinehood's lengthy manifesto in order to engage this challenge), to a philosophy more focused on the idea that beings in possession of intelligence deserve respect and life.
The original "Three Laws," which first appeared in fiction in 1942, largely defined artificial intelligence as subservient to humanity. In contrast, by upgrading the way we think about intelligence and robotics, Divya is preparing humanity for a revolution. As Welga and Nithya navigate parts of the United States, Chennai, India, and beyond, following the Machinehood's next message — the downing of communications tools necessary for an interconnected world — readers brace for the change. At once, Welga's ability to check in on her dispersed family disappears, as does Nithya's ability to tell her apartment to make food and create extra living spaces for the guests she shelters. Meanwhile, their work does not grind to a halt, it continues to escalate.
Both women must transform in order to protect those they love, and to get to the bottom of the novel's several mysteries: Who is behind The Machinehood, and how the drugs everyone's grown so used to taking impact human bodies and minds. At the same time, their relationships, with each other, with their digital assistants, with the previous generation, the future generation, and their partners all must be reassessed.
Fascinatingly, there is a third, subtler, point-of-view character hidden within the narrative, in the form of journals and documents. This third character is someone both Nithya and Welga must find in order to answer their questions — and when they do find her, she is a very messy answer. It's a wonderful look at lofty goals often held by futurists and technologists, and the very personal consequences that can ensue, but it also feels like another few beats — emotional in particular — would be welcome here. This is more of a wish than a flaw, in part because we are privy to such a rare thing throughout “Machinehood” — the emotional lives of women in tech — I want more of the same when it comes to the mysterious third party.
“Machinehood” takes its rightful place alongside the work of William Gibson, Malka Older, Isaac Asimov, Pat Cadigan, Vandana Singh, and Rudy Rucker as it engages with many of the topics we are wrestling with already, from bodily autonomy and privacy, to 24/7 news, invisible labor, influencer culture, disability, and political and military decisions based on assumptions forged in the past, rather than looking forward. This is an ambitious goal, and one that “Machinehood” achieves without losing touch with its humanity.
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