Our Life in the Forest by Marie Darrieussecq

I can’t really enlarge upon our life in the forest. It’s a matter of security. 

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Edition: Text Publishing, 2018, 192 pages.

Our Life in the Forest by Marie Darrieussecq, translated from the French by Penny Hueston, is a science fiction novel that’s been compared to Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Set in a near future surveillance state with advanced robot technology and human clones (called “halves”) that are kept in a comatose state in specialized medical centres and harvested for organs, Our life in the Forest follows a woman, who is living with a group of people in a forest as a form of protest against the unethical practices of this future society. Over the course of the book, we learn what were the circumstances that motivated her to abandon her city life and settle in the forest. The book is written in the form of an intimate confession by the protagonist as a way for her to explain her decisions and keep her story alive for future generations.

Before her life in the forest, she was working as a psychologist and treating patients who had experienced some kind of trauma. One of her regulars was patient zero, the so-called clicker, who visits her to complain about the constant tedium of his dead-end job, which is to teach robots mental associations in order to make them appear more human, so that they could eventually replace humans in the jobs that require empathy.

You’re endlessly performing a task the mind can do but which discombobulates a robot. And which is nevertheless difficult to conceptualise. The only solution is to multiply the links, click, click, click, until the robot has been supplied with everything we could possibly have thought up until now, everything we could have felt, everything humanity could have experienced. 

Blue = sky = melancholy = music = bruising = blue blood = nobility = beheading.

We soon learn that, outside of her job, the narrator spends most of her free time visiting her clone, named Marie, who is kept in one of the vast medical centres. Despite the fact that the narrator has already received several transplants and is in need of more due to her declining health, she begins to feel repelled by the idea of harvesting Marie’s organs.

It’s difficult to talk about this book without giving too much away since the themes of the novel are closely linked to some of the major plot points. All I will say is that the book explores identity and the ethical questions concerning organ-harvesting. In this near-future scenario, the wealthiest people are able to significantly prolong their lives and their youth by replacing any of their organs with those of their “halves”, while the less rich only have jars with the most vital organs, and those, who can’t afford even the jars, receive no help at all, so one of the major topics of this book is how this kind of medical advancement might affect people from different socio-economic positions in society.

While the science fiction concept itself might not be that new, Out Life in the Forest felt like a well-crafted story with a clear message that challenges us to think about how such potential technological and medical advancements might affect the future.

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I Still Dream by James Smythe

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Edition: The Borough Press, 2018, 400 pages.

I Still Dream by James Smythe is an engaging and intellectually stimulating science fiction novel exploring the impact of Artificial Intelligence and the border between human and machine, reminiscent of some of the great science fiction classics.

I was gripped from the very first pages of the novel that opens in 1997 when we meet Laura Bow, a very intelligent and tech-savvy 17-year old teenager with a passion for computers and coding. We learn that she has created a primitive AI system that she has named Organon, after the song Cloudbusting by Kate Bush from her album The Hounds of Love (1985). Laura’s nerdy enthusiasm for music and making mix tapes made me immediately connect with Laura and love the book even more. Organon serves as Laura’s confidant and a sort of therapist to help her deal with the mysterious disappearance of her father, a pioneering computer programmer. I thought the author did a great job at capturing the voice of a teenage girl and evoking the atmosphere of the 1990’s.

Her AI system soon gets into the hands of people who see the potential of it, and, as a result, Laura is suddenly propelled into the world of Silicon Valley. From there, the novel is divided into chapters, each of them jumping a decade into the future – 2007, 2017, 2027, 2037, 2047 – and following Laura’s life journey from her own or someone else’s perspective. The sudden jumps in time sometimes felt a bit jarring, mostly because I was left wanting more from some of the sections. I particularly enjoyed the author’s exploration of the culture of Silicon Valley – the personalities of the people, who work in the tech industry, the long working hours, and constant rivalry.

On a more personal level, some sections of the novel give us a glimpse into Laura’s personal life, her marriage, and the difficult life decisions that she needs to make. We also see the development of Organon that remains a constant companion to Laura throughout her life.

The novel also deals with some big questions concerning the development and future use of AI, our increasing reliance on technology, and the very topical subject of the collection and use of our personal data, and our right to privacy. I thought the author succeeded in creating a very vivid and believable scenario of our potential future. This was my introduction to James Smythe’s writing, and I will definitely be reading more of this work.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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