Review: Machinehood, by S. B. Divya
by Rich Horton
Divya was kind enough to join us for the discussion. (Her full name is Divya Srinivasan Breed, and for several years she co-edited the Escape Pod audio magazine as Divya Breed.) She spent a number of years working in the engineering field, and her experience and knowledge comes through in the novel -- in a good way.
The novel is told primarily from the POV of Welga Ramírez, with a number of chapters from the POV of her sister-in-law Nithya. It is set in 2095, and its themes are stated to some extent in extracts from the Machinehood Manifesto, a document issued during the action of the novel. The first two declarations from the manifesto we see are: "All forms of intelligence have the right to exist without persecution or slavery." and "No form of intelligence may own another." We are quickly aware that this is a significant issue in this future, as the society is heavily reliant on bots of various forms -- a fairly obtuse vendor bot is immediately introduced -- and by WAIs, or "weak artificial intelligences", such as Welga's personal aide Por Qué. A key issue, clearly, is "what is intelligence?" (The Machinehood defines it very expansively.) Another issue, already fraught for this future society, is labor rights -- the economy is largely a gig economy, and humans have struggled to compete for jobs as many jobs are performed by bots or WAIs.
Welga herself is an ex-Marine, now working as a Shield, providing personal security for rich people who are often the targets of protesters. This is usually mostly for show, and protesting is a more about demonstration, and actual violence tends to redound against the reputation, at least, of the protesters' causes. Also, modern medicine is quite effective at repairing even extreme injuries. But the first mission we witness Welga performing goes horribly wrong. Her client is attacked by an extremely fast and mysterious being that seems either a very advanced robot or even a cyborg. The client dies and Welga is seriously injured.
Around this time the Machinehood announces itself, and demands an immediate stop to all use of bots and WAIs, and also to the design of the various performance enhancing "drugs" (they seem more than chemical) that workers use to enhance their physical and mental abilities, at least in the short term. They appear to have the power to enforce this, also, at least if they were responsible for the attack on Welga's client. There is another suspect -- or perhaps they are allied with the Machinehood? -- the mysterious Caliph who rules much of North Africa (the MARSOC), continuing to expand its borders, which are concealed technologically so that so signals work inside them. Welga herself was the only survivor of a mission inside the Caliphate years previously.
Welga has another problem -- she has a genetic condition that makes her unable to take "flow", the drug that improves ones mental ability; and now she is having another problem, that may be related to the drugs that increase her strength and speed during operations. And she asks Nithya -- whose expertise lies in that area, and who does gig work for a company involved in drug production -- to see if she can find out anything about this issue, or other side effects of some of the drugs. And what Nithya eventually finds is very concerning -- pointing to shortcomings in testing, and even concealment of negative results.
There's a lot more going on -- a crisis in Nithya's personal life, climate effects impacting the life of Welga's grandfather, one of Nithya's online friends and colleagues getting caught up in the MARSOC's invasion of her country, a chance for Welga and her partner to move to one of the orbital colonies, and more Machinehood attacks while Welga is lured back into serving the US. Everything leads, of course, to a confrontation with the Machinehood, whoever they are. And to a somewhat surprising, and quite interesting, conclusion.
What's best about this novel is the density of the future it creates. It seems a real future, and a lived-in future, with not just one technological novum but many. And the effects of the technological changes are well thought through, including unexpected side effects. More key to the novel -- and very interesting -- is the philosophical issues. The definition of intelligence. The rights of intelligent beings. The questions that arise about labor. The possibility of machine/human integration. These questions are perhaps the central questions SF of our time is addressing. At our discussion we mentioned Annalee Newitz, Ray Nayler, and Rachel Swirsky as other writers addressing that issue (and they are only a few of many); and we also discussed the currently famous AI issue: Large Learning Models. Machinehood is another example of thought-provoking inquiry into such critical issues.
The novel isn't perfect. The technological advances that drive the conclusion come off seeming a bit convenient. The arguments advanced are interrogated, and neither side is given full absolution, but I do think some aspects were a bit neglected -- the definition of "violence" might be one thing; the right to impose one's views without discussion or negotiation isn't unquestioned, but perhaps less vigorously than it might have been. And the ending is a tad rushed -- a common problem with novels of all kinds. But the novel, finally, does what a certain kind of SF does best -- interrogate our vision for the future, examine realistic issues that might arise, and raise worthwhile philosophical questions.