I Still Dream by James Smythe review – the catastrophic rise of AI

Sophisticated artificial intelligence and societal meltdown are vividly imagined in this cinematic disaster novel

The central character in I Still Dream is a Cassandra figure called Laura Bow, a tech consultant whose ambivalence towards SCION, an artificial intelligence developed by her father’s company, pits her against her employers. Her story is told across a 50‑year timeline extending into the future and beginning in 1997, when she is a precocious 17-year-old coder. She has just made her own AI, which she names Organon after a Kate Bush song lyric. Organon becomes increasingly sophisticated as the novel progresses, combining the roles of personal assistant, companion and confidant: it picks a playlist for her when she’s running, and prevents her from sending rash messages while drunk; when Laura’s mother dies, it tries to console her by conversing with her in a simulation of her voice.

Laura is adamant that “Organon’s not going to turn into fucking Skynet”, the AI system that goes rogue in the Terminator films. Ever since the days of Marshall McLuhan technologists have speculated about “the singularity” – the point at which digital interconnectedness becomes so comprehensive and all-pervading that it takes on a will of its own. Such anxieties often fixate on the question of whether AI can ever become truly sentient, but Laura believes this is beside the point. Sentient or not, megalomania is built into the logic of SCION: “It’s selfish. It wants control, and we’ve taught it how to be human. Years and years of watching, of monitoring … social media, emails, whatever.” The doomsday scenario here is more prosaic than The Terminator’s rise-of-the-machines Holocaust, but still catastrophic: a mass leak of private communications data, precipitating a societal meltdown.

James Smythe has a sideline as a writer of young adult fiction, and some of the triter epiphanies in these pages wouldn’t look out of place in that genre. Here Laura overhears the screeching of some copulating foxes: “They want help, it sounds like. I think; Don’t we all?” A great many things in this book are described as “weird”. Someone’s schedule is “weirdly clear” and on the next page a living room is “weirdly opulent”; two pages after that, a furry toilet-seat cover is also “weird”. In fairness many people do actually talk like this, and what Smythe’s prose lacks in literary flair it makes up for in easy accessibility. His is decidedly a big-screen sensibility, and I Still Dream pulses with the foreboding frisson of a sci-fi disaster movie.

  • I Still Dream by James Smythe (Harper Collins Publishers, £12.99). To order a copy for £9.75, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
Houman Barekat

The GuardianTramp

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