Book review: I Still Dream by James Smythe

i still dream james smytheIn 1997, between homework and phoning her friends and making mix tapes, seventeen-year-old Laura is still struggling to come to terms with the disappearance of her father several years earlier. Her mother took her to therapy but Laura thinks she can do better.

Building on the code her father, a computer programmer, left behind, she teaches herself to write a piece of artificial intelligence (AI) software called Organon (from the Kate Bush song Cloudbusting which Laura and her father both love). She tells Organon everything, and hopes that as Organon learns from her, it can respond to her needs. As Organon grows it begins to help her in ways she hadn’t anticipated.

The novel revisits Laura and Organon every decade, sometimes from Laura’s perspective, sometimes from the point of view of people close to her. We see how the world changes, how technology develops, the decisions made by corporations that control rival technologies.

I’ve read a couple of books recently which feature AI but this is very different. Usually the focus is on what humanity has created and what it reveals about who ‘we’ are, but this book looks at who is doing the creating and what drives them. Laura’s Organon is different from the alternatives, but why? The story has a lot to say both about the process of creating AI and the values underpinning it, and the questions those creators ask (or fail to ask) themselves.

The ten-year intervals between chapters mean much of what has happened, to both Laura and to society, is not explained. You are given tantalising glimpses, and the opportunity to question, imagine, infer.

Through it all, runs the story of Laura, her humour, her original perspective, her values. She both changes and retains her sense of self as Organon evolves with her. She is a remarkable character and I found the end of the book very poignant.

I finished this book a few days before I wrote this review and I found that my thoughts kept coming back to it. I Still Dream asks questions about consciousness, memory and identity, what we value, how we deal with loss. The more you ask of it, the more you learn.

I received a copy of I Still Dream from the publisher via Netgalley.
View I Still Dream on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Take a look at  my review of The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker


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