We're shaken up from the weirdness in vN, Madeline Ashby's novel about artificial consciousness and self-replicating machines. And now, she's written a novel about The Singularity, when artificial intelligence surpasses our own and everything changes. We've got a cover reveal, and some details, below.
First up, here's the cover of Ashby's new novel Company Town, exclusively revealed at io9:
And here's what she told us about this book, coming in October:
After I wrote the most fucked-up book about robot consciousness ever, followed by an even more fucked-up sequel*, people started asking me about the Singularity. I'm a working futurist, so I'm supposed to know all about it. The problem was, I didn't really have any answers. So I decided to write a fucked-up book about it. And sex work. And serial killers. That novel, about sex work and serial murder and the Singularity, is called Company Town.
Company Town is set in New Arcadia, a city of autonomous self-repairing towers floating around a dying offshore oil rig over the Flemish Pass Basin 500km off Newfoundland, (where there was a major oil discovery in 2013). The protagonist, Go Jung-hwa, is an escort's escort for the United Sex Workers of Canada, Local 314, which operates legally in town. As the novel opens, Hwa's bodyguard job takes her to the formal handoff between the many companies that once owned New Arcadia, and Lynch Ltd, the family-owned company that has just bought the whole town lock, stock, and barrel. Hwa spots a man with a rifle up on a gantry high above the crowd, and takes off after him. She kicks him in the face, and he offers her a job: become the bodyguard for the youngest member of Lynch clan — a boy named Joel who has been getting death threats from the future. Why Hwa? Because not only is Hwa fast on her feet, she's one of the last people in town without any cybernetic implants, chips, or other biological augments. She can't be hacked. She can't be tracked. And when your enemy is a super-intelligence of the networked variety, an off-grid organic ass-kicker is exactly the one you want on your side. The only catch? Taking the job means going back to finish high school with Joel — three years after having dropped out. But for the pay raise, Hwa's willing to deal with detention, cafeteria food, and wearing a uniform.
Until someone starts murdering her friends.
What follows is a story about being torn between your friends and your future: saving the people of a town that can't be saved, or keeping your head down and saving yourself. It's also about what it means to be the last ugly person in a city of beautiful people. Or at least, what it means to think about yourself that way. Hwa has Sturge-Weber Syndrome, and the presence of her port wine stain and the absence of a "stim-plant" to control her seizures automatically identify her as poor — that is, if you can see her face. Most people in New Arcadia wear specs or contacts to layer their realities, and thanks to a basic "stop staring" app, most of them don't even see her stain. Neither can most of the surveillance cameras that buzz and hum around the city — her face is a natural dazzle pattern that inhibits facial recognition algorithms. So Hwa goes through life either invisible or stared at, with no one seeing her true self.
In other words it's a human story, about human beings, and that's sort of a big step for me. It's a big change from the godless killing machines I usually write about. When I wrote vN, I did it in part because because I wanted to tell a story in which the humans were meat. I was sick of humans being so fucking special all the time. The Age of Men being the "natural" successor even after the Hobbits prove themselves far worthier, Bella Swan smelling so great to vampires, all that. Deep down, I've always believed that the Terminators should have won. I mean, Skynet really only deploys the weapons that humans built decades ago. We kind of had it coming.
And that's how I feel about the Singularity, too. We have it coming. Whether you believe in a slow Singularity or a fast one, the fact is that technology is going to change over time. And trends indicate that eventually, we will outsource more and more control over increasingly complex systems to algorithms and artificial intelligences, because it's easier than doing the hard work of democracy and decision-making. I mean, I might just be saying that because I live in a city led by a mayor who smokes crack, where cutting license tab taxes is somehow more important than building a bike lane or funding a library or finding affordable housing for vulnerable people, but it seems to me like the obsession with smart cities has more to do with harvesting and retailing data from urbanites than actually listening to their concerns. Sure, your toilet will know you're pregnant before you do. But only so it can send you ads for ginger ale.
So really, I guess you could say that I wrote this book to decide how I felt about humanity. Really, that's no different from what all other writers or artists do, but science fiction writers get asked about it more. Nobody ever pulled Dostoyevksy aside and said: "Hey, Fyodor. So, are we as a species just toast, or what?" But science fiction writers enjoy the rare and compelling privilege of being asked where we think this whole thing is going. We get asked when the Singularity will happen, which is basically like being asked when to expect the Second Coming of Christ. (Even if we did know the date, what would we do with that information? Get a bikini wax? Do you get a bikini wax for the exponential growth of artificial intelligence that treats human civilization the way metastatic cancer treats a human body?) We get asked when to expect those jetpacks, too. (Never. You're never getting them. Your generation wished for jetpacks and all you got was Agent Orange. Stop being pissed about the jetpacks.)
None of these questions are the real question, though. The real question is not what the future will be, but what you want it to be, and how far you're willing to go to get it. What you're willing to give up. How hard you're willing to work. How silly you're willing to look, pursuing your dream. How many times you're willing to get hurt, hoping for something better. And those are all human desires that can't be quantified with chips or sensors. They're in our personal histories, our personal timelines. And every moment we are willing to work harder, take a risk, and get hurt is a moment that builds the future we really want.
*And if anyone's curious, there will be a third, unbelievably fucked-up book in the Machine Dynasty series, called Rev. Which is also about the Rapture.