The Humanoids, by Jack Williamson
Synopsis: Failed Utopia: Benevolent AI is too paternalistic, doesn’t allow humans to do anything, humans rebel.
Book Review: Atompunk isn’t a term I’m terribly comfortable with, because I think the practice of adding the –punk suffix to everything is reaching the point of risibility. But for those unfamiliar, it’s a sub-genre that takes place in the future as it was imagined in the 50s. The best popular example is the Fallout series of games, in which the pre-apocalytic world is basically atompunk – 1950s Leave It To Beaver wholesomeness with chrome and spandex everywhere, and EVERYTHING runs on atomic power, from your car to your teapot. This feels like an atompunk book, for the most interesting reason – it was published in 1949. This is atompunk the same way that Pride and Prejudice is steampunk. Which makes it really interesting to read.
Stylistically, it’s quite a throwback. At times it’s charming, such as this line near the beginning: “For Starmont was not on Earth, nor Jane Carter’s language English; even her name is here translated from less familiar syllables.” I can’t even read that with a straight face, it’s so damn adorable! Other times it’s just tedious, with lots of narrative assertions and truckloads of tacked on adverbs.
But what about the content, you ask? Well. This novel is a one-trick-pony. It’s basically a straight helplessness-horror story, with a twist at the end. When it does that trick, it does it very well. The frustration and rage I felt at the machines taking away everything made me grind my teeth as I was reading. The constant paranoid fear of having to always present as super-happy in every moment of your life or risk being permanently drugged up with stupefying euphorics was terrifying. This was hell, and death would be better, if not for the glimmer of hope that perhaps the monsters can be overthrown. But unfortunately the trick doesn’t take a novel-length work to play out. It would be extremely effective as a short story or novelette (and indeed Williamson did originally write this as a novelette, which I hear is outstanding), but when it’s stretched out into a novel there’s many many pages that add nothing and seem to be just the protagonist spinning his wheels. It was kinda annoying.
The thing that kept me coming back was the ambivalence in the novel. It’s hinted that maybe the machines aren’t so bad. Our protagonist is certainly an asshole, and destructive both to himself and those around him, so you can’t say for certain that the machines are wrong in not giving him full freedom. You suspect he might not be a reliable narrator, and you keep going to see if there is a twist at the ending.
And there kinda is, but kinda not. Is it worth suffering through the middle for the reveal at the end? If this was shorter, I would say definitely. At it’s actually length…. Eh. Ultimately, I’m glad I read it. I would recommend skimming through the whole middle part of the book, but the strength of its horror-front and twist-back push it into Recommended.
Book Club Review: There will be spoilers in this section, so if you don’t want to read them I’ll simply say right now – for Book Clubs, I STRONGLY Recommended this. Discussion why below. It includes spoilers, so turn away now if you don’t want them.
OK, so. The ending to this is basically a mirror of the ending to A Clockwork Orange. It turns out that the machines gladly give humans the freedom to do whatever they want, including self-harming behavior, once they are mentally and emotionally mature enough to evaluate the risks and choose to take those risks from an informed position. It’s a lot like how we don’t allow children to buy alcohol or tobacco or refuse chemotherapy, but we do allow adults to do those things. Not only that, the machines actively repair damaged humans so they are raised to that level of maturity and can make those decisions – they are uplifting the species, in a sense. In this respect they remind me very much of the humans in Three Worlds Collide who repaired the Confessor’s Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and gave him therapy and whatever.
But the thing is, the author didn’t intend to portray this in a positive way. You can tell he meant for this to be horrific, in part because of the implicit claim that 99+% of humanity needs this upgrading before the machines will give them freedom, including our “normal” protagonist. He just did a shitty job of presenting it as horrific (IMHO). This led to a very interesting split in our reading group, between those who read it as it was intended, and those who read it the same way I did.
Since it’s obvious that the author wanted this to be horrifying, it’s easy to go along with that. It was argued that it’s evil that they forced this uplift on people who didn’t want it. It was argued that making everyone conform to one vision of “normal” destroys all the variation that makes life worth living. It was argued that the life of the super-happys is not worth living, we must be free to feel pain and disappointment and boredom. It was argued that without the ability to hurt and grow as people we are impoverished and we would lose not only our humanity, but also the art that lifts us up and glorifies life. You can’t have 10,000 Days without a suffering artist.
And first of all, this makes for some AMAZING discussion!! Both the arguing of the actual points raised (for there are counter arguments… shouldn’t we help this homeless person (trigger warning: extremely depressing) if we could? Is it right to make others suffer so we can consume amazing art? etc), which was stimulating and passionate! But also because ultimately I do agree with ALL those points! But the problem was that this isn’t the world portrayed in the book! The world portrayed in the book is one where the AI actually does a good job of balancing freedom and responsibility, where the machines fix people to make them more human, more the people we want to become! Williamson wanted to write the ending of 1984, where it is clear that people are being destroyed and mind-raped into loving the system that controls them. But he didn’t even get A Clockwork Orange, where reasonable people can say “The method is flawed, so even though the results are good now, we should be wary that this could be used on normal people instead of murder-rapist psychopaths.” Williamson went all the way into “How is this not actually a utopia?” territory. And I think the interplay between readers who are willing to say “Fuck you, even if they’ll thank you for it afterwards it’s still brainwashing and turns them into different people!” and those who say “Sometimes who we are could use upgrading” makes for really fascinating dynamics.
I’m still not even sure I’m on the right side, to be honest.
So yes, this sparked some of the best conversation we’ve had in months. STRONGLY Recommended.
Reading this I thought to myself, maybe, just maybe there are people who read my area. Talking to people about books does seem like fun. Turns out there is one. Run by Christians with the slogan “A centre for Creative Spirituality”. Oh well /sadness.
who read in my area *
Aw. :( Have you considered starting up an SF/F book club? It may just take someone to get things started.
This may be the case but I don’t feel that I have the temperament and skill sets required to do such a thing.