Set at the end of the 21st century, this sci-fi novel follows the stories of two sisters-in-law who will both prove pivotal in the fight against the terrorist organization known as the Machinehood.
Eighty years from now, people are heavily reliant on technology and weak artificial intelligences (known as WAIs) to perform the most mundane tasks, leading to increased joblessness as humans need to dose themselves with all manner of performance-enhancing pills, often mini-machines that work inside the body, in order to keep up with the Joneses, human or AI. American Welga Ramirez is the daughter of a bioengineer who died a painful death due to her genetic code’s incompatibility with flow, a common mind/focus enhancer: on her deathbed, she made her kids foreswear the drug, leading to Welga washing out of college. So Welga enlisted in the US Armed Forces instead, eventually retiring as a result of her disgust at a botched operation in the Maghreb. Now she works as a Shield, essentially a telegenic bodyguard for the rich capitalist class or funders, as they’re known, to differentiate them from giggers, the majority of the world labor force who must rely on the gig economy to make ends meet.
Her brother Luis is married to Nithya Balachandran and lives in Chennai with his wife and their daughter Carma. Nithya is a biogeneticist, and the first person Welga turns to when she starts to suffer from tremors, likely caused by the constant pill usage required in her line of work. But all personal issues take a back seat when a shadowy organization proclaiming the equality of humanity with AI targets the funders of several successful pharmaceutical companies simultaneously, resulting in death, destruction and mass panic as the terrorists’ demands make their way to the global populace. Soon, Welga will have to question her own beliefs and boundaries as she embarks on a desperate hunt to stop the organization calling itself the Machinehood from killing again.
It might come as a surprise for me to say that in a book so shot through with ideas of future tech and sentience, my favorite parts were the ones that dealt with the romantic relationships, between Nithya and Luis, and between Welga and Connor. Their relationships get messy and uncomfortable but the way the partners negotiate their way through conflict is honestly inspiring. It’s so nice to see realistic portrayals of strong partnerships depicted in any media, much less genre fiction.
And while I appreciated how Welga stayed true to the idea that the ends do not justify the means, particularly when the cost is in human and AI lives, and while I agreed with the well-thought-out moral and scientific philosophies of this novel, a lot of the economic premises failed to convince me. In one of the earlier chapters, Welga discovers the shortcomings of a local WAI coffee vendor and opts for coffee from a human instead: the fact that this tendency of human nature to prefer human contact, and thusly to be willing to pay a marginal amount extra for it, is often overlooked in progressive sci-fi depictions of future economies continues to baffle me (I am also watching the latest season of The Expanse right now and trying to ignore the economics — perhaps once I read the books I’ll understand it better.) I was also unenthused by Nithya’s career change: for a novel that had seemed to be critiquing capitalist stratification, it felt odd for Nithya to cap her personal journey by embracing being part of the exploiting class.
I did enjoy the dry remarks made at the expense of various world governments, as well as the clever references to previous decades subtly mirroring the just-past century. I also really liked how S. B. Divya acknowledges the importance of the very different skillsets both Welga and Nithya brought to bear in combating the Machinehood. I think more could have been done in building emotional suspense — the Big Bad’s capitulation, as one example, felt strangely flat — but overall, this was an entertaining, thought-provoking look at a plausible future extrapolated from some of the worst of our present-day.
Machinehood by S. B. Divya will be published tomorrow March 2, 2021 by Gallery/Saga Press and is available from all good booksellers, including
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