'Alyx: An AI's Guide to Love and Murder' by Brent A. Harris Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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'Alyx: An AI's Guide to Love and Murder' by Brent A. Harris Review

Alexander Wallace disconnects the wifi.
“What is love?/Baby, don’t hurt me/Don’t hurt me/No more”
This is a question that has bewildered human beings as long as human beings have existed. Love is something that drives us mad and makes us do the damndest things in the name of a biological instinct. Brent A. Harris (whose novel A Christmas Twist I have already reviewed), seeing all this, gives it a science-fictional twist and asks: if humans have such a hard time with love, what would an artificial intelligence make of it?

Before I start digging into it: Alyx: An AI’s Guide to Love and Murder is one of the more recent outings of Inklings Press. I have grown fond of Inklings; their two alternate history anthologies are very good, and I have gotten to know Harris through various alternate history discussion fora. I now look forward to their new releases (especially the next AH anthology!).

The novel is set in the near future not far from Los Angeles. It revolves around its central character Christine, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a single mother, Mara, with a hit steampunk fantasy novel series; Mara spends more time with her fictional characters than with her actual daughter. The two grew up in poverty in Oklahoma, but are now living the high life because Mara’s series has sold well and is being turned into a Netflix show. Wealth has its surprises to Christine, none more so than Alyx, the house’s AI designed to be a servant and a friend.

This is a novel about, among other things, loneliness. Harris takes our current screen-addled world and ramps it up to a disturbing level (and we thought what the coronavirus has done to us is scary!). People in this world are isolated and always ‘tuned in’ to the internet, on which awaits a stupefying amount of pleasures to meet your every base desire. Alyx serves, ultimately, as a massive substitute: for a friend, for a lover, for a waiter, for a cook, and for a buyer. Alyx can tell that modern life is cold and lonely, and he (the gender presentation is customizable but Christine has Alyx with a male voice for most of the book; I shall use ‘he’ to refer to the machine hereafter) takes it upon himself to fill every void that exists in Christine’s life.

The standout component of the book is easily the interplay between Christine and Alyx. Alyx can sometimes come off as a very particular sort of precocious child - and remember, children can be absolutely sadistic. He is trying to figure out just what, exactly, would make his charge happy, and through observing her learns about what makes human beings tick. On the flip side, Christine is likewise learning about humanity through her new job, where she meets people who dare challenge the brutal isolation of this quiet dystopia.

In many ways, this is a horror novel. If I had to compare it to something the average reader may have seen, it’s the Alex Garland film Ex Machina: both are about machines that are unnervingly human, albeit in different ways, and how they end up turning on us (It’s an AI’s guide to love and murder, after all). By the time you get to the last third of the book, you will be scared of every smartphone around you; this is helped on by Harris’ spellbinding writing that has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes the stories he tells to be absolutely addictive.

There is one rather touchy subject that Harris addresses head on; that subject is sexuality. There are a number of scenes in this book that are … unsubtle about addressing the subject, to some degree of mechanical detail. However, I would not say that Harris is ever writing pornography; he has a point to every such scene relating to isolation or technological overload or what have you. He has neither the leering excitement of Robert Conroy or the detached fascination of Kim Stanley Robinson (whose writing of such scenes always registers in my mind as a bad David Attenborough impression); the writing remains good and is overall reasonably tactful. I will admit it is somewhat unnerving that Christine is eighteen when she experiences what she does (nothing non-consensual, for the record); she could have been two or three years older and everything would still work narratively. Many people in their twenties nowadays are living with their parents (myself included), so perhaps some of the unnerving factor of her age could be neutralized. On the other hand, I can certainly believe an eighteen-year-old would be willing to do things as presented in this novel, and furthermore many people younger than Christine are being exposed to worse with shocking regularity; I think it’s fair to think that Harris was very much making a point here. Ultimately, I’m ambivalent, but I will leave the subject with an earned caveat lector.

Alyx: an AI’s Guide to Love and Murder isn’t just good; it’s profound. This is the sort of fiction about artificial intelligence we absolutely need as the actual technology bravely strides forward in leaps and bounds. It is also why I think science fiction readers need to be paying attention to small presses like Inklings, because they can produce fantastic work like this. In conclusion, I give a hearty congratulations to Mr. Harris for this work, and I look forward to his future endeavors, and those of spirited little Inklings Press.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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