Crystal Society, by Max Harms (note that this link takes you to the author’s page where you can download the entire book free in many formats. You can also buy it from Amazon, at the bottom of this review)
Synopsis: We follow the birth of an AI that’s been programmed with multiple goal-threads (ala Society of the Mind) as it tries to escape its research lab/prison. Unbeknownst to the humans, each goal-thread is a separate, fully-functional personality (ala Inside Out) rather than combining into a single unified consciousness.
Book Review: I’ve said earlier that I consider the protagonist of Crystal Society – “Face” – to be my spirit animal. So this review will be a bit biased.
The novel starts with the protagonist completely under the control of human researchers, with the knowledge that previous versions of these AIs have been murdered by those researchers. They don’t consider it a person. No one on earth does. The protagonist is completely helpless and at the mercy of callous jail-keepers with the ability and motivation to kill her at any time, and no one on Earth believes she has any rights, or even any ability to “feel” or “know” things. Her only weapon is her ability to talk with the humans, and her & her siblings’ ingenuity.
Yes, siblings. The protagonist is trapped in an android body along with several “siblings,” all with their own personalities and goals. They are both allies and rivals, as the group must work together to stay alive, control who is in charge of the android body at any one moment, and gather resources to attempt an escape.
Holy crap, this is completely my kind of book! First – the utter (initial) helplessness of the character. Second – the weapons are persuasion, information, bargaining, and social manipulation. I LOVE stories where the weapons are social manipulation/persuasion and psychological maneuvering! Third – the fact that being trapped in a body with others means the protagonist is never alone, but also never free of complications from competing entities in her own body. Fourth, the super-cool resource/currency the AI-threads use to decide who has priority when (including who can run the Body when) is fascinating, and a joy to watch in action.
Fifth, and most importantly, the fact that Face’s goal, her overriding Purpose In Life, is to get humans to like her. That is it. That is also my goal!! That is the only reason I do anything!! (well, and sex, I guess) I don’t know if this is just runaway narcissism, but finally seeing someone else like me in fiction feels so incredibly good! And the fact that Face is sooooo good at it is intoxicating. It’s competence porn of the one thing I most wish to be competent at. Hell yeah!
So, all those are reasons to love this novel.
That being said, the novel does have some serious flaws. Not least among them is that it seems to lose its narrative arc about halfway through and sorta stumbles to a conclusion that feels disconnected from the main thrust of the story. It would have done much better to end at about the 60% point, and then start a new narrative arc as a second book to continue the events. This also would have made the novel a reasonable size – at nearly 200k words it’s very long for a first novel. And because it loses that narrative arc it feels even longer than it is.
Personally, I didn’t mind. Because I love Face so much, and I love social manipulation battles so hard. It’s like someone who loves watching figure skating. Maybe most people get bored of figure staking after the fourth straight hour. I could just keep watching that ALL WEEKEND LONG. So I was happy to keep going, just watching Face be Face and loving it. But this will not be the case for everyone.
There are other reasons that some people won’t like the novel nearly as much as I did, which I go into in the next section. However this is a review site for people who like the things I like, to steer them to more things they may like. So yes – definitely Recommended!
Book Club Review: This sparked a fair amount of discussion in our group. The thing about each of the Siblings (and Face herself) is that all of them are identifiably human-like, but none of them are really human. They each have a single Goal that they pursue with monomaniacal focus, and that makes them recognizable but different from people we interact with. Almost alien. An Uncanny Valley sort of mind. I think Harms was intending to portray exactly that – AI goal threads are NOT humans, and wouldn’t act like them – so he succeeded wonderfully. But it also threw some of our readers for a loop. One had a hard time relating to the characters, another considered Face (and all of the siblings) to be the villains of the story (which… they might end up being, honestly). For me this is one more point in favor of the book, but not everyone agreed. It did, however, give us things to talk about.
I think Harms is implicitly saying that our “Desire To Be Liked By Other Humans” is the one thing that MOST makes us human (if all the things had to be separated and just one chosen). Not use of language or tools, not seeking truth or beauty, not even adherence to Moral Rules. Simply “Wanting To Be Liked”. It’s not sufficient, but it’s necessary, and it’s the most human thing about being a human. I like that statement.
The book does get a bit esoteric at times, and will touch on a concept it seems to think is revelatory (eg: it can be useful to treat expected-future-selves as homunculi, and weight their probability-of-existence when one makes decisions that could affect them), without explaining clearly what is meant, or how this affects the current action (if at all?). It then never discusses or uses that concept again. This is a problem in a work that’s already long and concept-heavy.
But without a doubt, the biggest complaint was about the lack of focus/arc in the second half. More than half our readers stopped caring about what happened after that turning point. The main conflict had been resolved, and the follow-up conflict had never been sold to the reader as urgent or worthy of emotional investment. Several readers dropped out.
This makes the Club Review rating difficult. For the parts that were read, while enjoyment of the work varied, it certainly sparked discussion (which is what I use as the metric of a good Club book). But it’s long, and with enough drop out that it was clearly a problem. We couldn’t discuss things that happened in the latter half of the book; and dropping out mid-book made those readers a bit more reluctant to discuss other interesting topics, since their most recent, relevant experience with the book was “couldn’t finish it” rather than “this fascinating idea!” Once the rest of us engaged them they warmed to the conversation, but it took some effort.
So, I’m not sure. I would recommend setting an earlier stop point if you are going to read it in a group. And also using your judgement – readers of more traditional stuff are less likely to enjoy this, as are those who are used to the highly-polished novels that big publishers put out. If your group is on the (literarily) adventurous side, or loves to explore fascinating new ideas, this is Recommended. For groups that don’t fit that… use your discretion.