Looking into the (near) future

>> Thursday, October 04, 2018

Two books set (or partially set) in the near future. They also share a non-traditional, somehow fragmented structure.

TITLE: Tell the Machine Goodnight
AUTHOR: Katie Williams

For some reason, this somewhat reminded me of Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Probably the structure, which was sort of like a collection of vignettes, almost short stories, from the points of view of various people in this world, some of whom we return to, some of whom we don't.

The first one is Pearl, a woman who works for a company that offers consultations with a machine called Apricity that, based on a swab test, tells people the things they need to change in their life to be happy (this could be anything... learn a language, cut off contact with your sister, cut off the tip of your left index finger). Then comes one from the POV of her manager at the company, who gets drawn in by another manager, a rising star, into using a pimped up Apricity machine to get ahead in his job. Then there's one from the POV of Clark, Pearl's son, who is helping a friend find something out, and comes up with a way to use his mum's Apricity machine to do so. So, you get the picture, a sequence of lightly connected vignettes, all somehow using the concept of the Apricity machine.

The Apricity machine is a really interesting concept to play with. The book is set about 20 years in the future, but the themes speak very clearly about today, about the ways we try to pursue happiness by trying all sorts of gimmicks, rather than going along more slow (but boring) paths. I enjoyed it, but I would say it felt ultimately not quite satisfying. I was hoping there would be something that tied everything together in the end (at least a bit), but instead, it felt like things were sort of left hanging.


TITLE: Speak
AUTHOR: Louisa Hall

Speak follows 6 characters living in different times and spaces. There's the diary of a girl travelling to America from England in the 1600s. In the current day, there's a scientist working on an artificial intelligence programme and struggling to connect with his wife. There's letters sent by Alan Turing to the mother of a recently dead friend. Some 25 years into the future, writing his memoirs in a prison, there's a man who created something called "babybots", dolls with AI that many children ended up attaching to and becoming ill, seemingly as a result. There's a transcript (evidence in the babybot trial) of girl talking to an AI after her babybot was taken away. Finally, there's a babybot on the way to being destroyed.

Some of these storylines connect quite clearly (the link between the 3 characters in the future is obvious, but there's more. For instance, the scientist's wife edited and published the 17th century young girl's diary. The artificial intelligence programme created by the scientist builds on Turing's work. And so on).

I was really excited about this book at the beginning. It was reminiscent of Cloud Atlas (purposely, I would say) and I was hoping it would be as good. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. The themes were potentially interesting: the way communication and technology interact, the difficulties of really connecting with other humans. But I didn't feel Hall did all that much with them. Or maybe I just wasn't able to get beneath the surface of the different stories.



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