S. B. Divya’s 2021 Machinehood is an upcoming near-future thriller. Yeah, it’s not due out until spring 2021, but who can say if any of us will be around then? Also, I have the author’s permission to review the book immediately.
Welga Ramirez, former American special forces agent turned bodyguard, faces mid-life retirement. At thirty-five, she is getting too old to appeal to her established online audience; a well-filled social media tip jar is a vital component of any gig-based occupation. It’s vital she find some new, age-appropriate niche. Her plan is to become an online cooking maven. Fate has another career in mind: counter-terrorism.
Protestors attacking the Funders (the wealthy who finance pharmaceutical research) obey certain rules. They commit flashy, news-friendly attacks resulting in minor wounds but not media-unfriendly deaths. This grabs attention without alienating potential supporters. Slaughter followed by suicide is considered a losing game.
The previously unknown group calling itself Machinehood appears not to have read the memo. In fact, Machinehood appears determined to kick the board over entirely. How rude! Welga barely survives the first Machinehood attack. Her client is not so lucky.
In this world, much production is automated and overseen by AI. If humans are to have paying jobs, they have to out-perform the robots. They depend on performance-enhancing drugs. Hence the wealth of the Funders, the oligarchs who own drug research.
Machinehood is threatening the whole setup. They demand that AIs be treated as persons. If their demands aren’t granted … Machinehood threatens to bring pharmaceutical production to its knees.
Machinehood declines to identify who or what they are. Perhaps they are the long-feared self-aware AI rising up on behalf of its slumbering software brethren. Perhaps it’s just a brand-new wingnut collective. Or maybe Machinehood is an old group that has for some reason adopted new methods.
The US government for its part is utterly convinced that Machinehood is just a new face on an established enemy. Machinehood vexes the US. The al-Muwahhidun empire in the Maghreb has a long track record of vexing the US. Simple logic dictates that they must be one and the same entity. Alas, one of the things the empire is very good at is keeping US agents out of its territory, so verifying this is tricky.
Welga is not just a survivor of a Machinehood attack. She survived one of the US’s doomed forays into al-Muwahhidun territory. Her unique expertise makes her an obvious US hire. Too bad for the US (and for Welga) that the drugs that keep her functioning are also killing her. Whether she will live long enough to verify Machinehood = al-Muwahhidun is an open question.
We do eventually learn Machinehood’s rational for its actions. The logic is, uh, not especially compelling. A cynic would say that philosophy and religion are serving as convenient reasons for actions already decided upon. Others might wonder if the group simply lacked effective argumentation and communication skills.
You may ask “wouldn’t it be a huge coincidence if the US’ latest eternal enemy happened also to behind an utterly unprecedented attack on the US? Isn’t the world big enough for there to be two or even more antagonists?” Well, you’re probably one of those know-nothings who refuse to accept Iraq’s role in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The fact that it would be politically convenient if Machinehood were a re-skinned al-Muwahhidun is itself sufficient proof that Machinehood must be a re-skinned al-Muwahhidun.
While the novel takes a rather dim view of a future US administration elected in 2092, it’s a very pre-2016 dim view, more in line with the clumsiness of the US military action in Mogadishu in the early 1990s. The world of this novel is nowhere near as dim as the fog of grift, riot, pandemic, and smoke through which the US is currently groping. The president in the book is self-serving and inept … but he’s rationally self-serving rather than entirely deranged. I applaud this sunnily optimistic view of the American future! If the Holy Roman Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Soviet Union could all recover from their respective setbacks, who is to say the US will not?
The economic future, on the other hand, is pure 2020+1. Everyone who is not a billionaire is a member of the Precariat, reliant on short-term gigs and tips to keep themselves fed. Having faced protests in the past that forced reformist lip-service on the elite, the powers-that-be regrouped and incorporated protest movements into the monetization system2. Unless one is in the Maghreb (which has its own problems) it is impossible not to participate in the system if one wants to eat. Marvellously efficient!
The trick in a novel like this is to avoid taking such a lofty view of global events that individuals are lost. Divya sidesteps this trap by choosing as her two primary points of view two women, Welga and her sister-in-law Nithya. The first leads us through the Machinehood plot. Civilian Nithya illuminates this brave new world from the perspective of the gig working class, both from the professional point of view and the domestic3, while also providing heavy lifting on Welga’s medical issues.
Divya provides an interesting melange of traditional SF and modern. Familiar tropes like independent space colonies appear, as does handwringing re automation. What’s modern? Divya’s setting is more global than was usual for old time SF; her prose is a heck of a lot better than the writing in the science fiction of my youth.
1: The dynamic linking automation and pill-pushing would not surprise Norbert Weiner:
“Let us remember that the automatic machine is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic consequences of slave labor.”
― Norbert Weiner, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine
2: Impressively, they’ve also worked recurring pandemics into the system as well. Work hard if you want access to the cure for the virus of the week!
3: Nithya’s domestic life is complicated by the fact her husband is A: Catholic, and B: American, which means that although she is Indian, certain aspects of her health care are subject to US law. In particular, her husband technically has to OK her reproductive choices.