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We have moved from working your own land to working for a wealthy family all your life to working for a corporation all your life to working years at a time to working half a dozen different small jobs every day.” (p. 80)

Welga Ramirez is a security contractor with Platinum Shield Services, a rare job with steady employment in a world where the gig economy has become the default form of labour. This is a world in which performance enhancers (microbial, electronic, and otherwise) have long become normalised as the only way that human beings can compete with AI in the labour market, with the distinction between the individual and the machine becoming increasingly blurred:

Mechs like her father limited themselves to exoskeletons, virtual-reality visors, and haptic gloves to manipulate machinery. Researchers like her mother took cognitive-enhancement drugs and pills. When that had proven insufficient to compete with the WAIs, people turned into bot-nannies—glorified babysitters to accompany the intelligent machines that did the real work. (p. 27)

It’s a world in which people get by—kind of. But everything changes when Briella Jackson, Welga’s client and a high-profile “pill funder,” is assassinated in broad daylight in a high-tech co-ordinated attack, ostensibly by a group that calls itself “The Machinehood.” The Machinehood demands equal recognition for “all intelligent machines,” whether “organic or inorganic” (p. 39), and therefore, a cessation of pill and drug production. Engaged by her government to hunt down the perpetrators, Welga’s quest leads her down numerous dangerous roads: to the reclusive al-Muwahiddun in the Maghreb, whose caliph has a known fondness for “voluntary modification of human bodies” (p. 84); to the prospect of a sentient artificial intelligence (SAI); to the satellite of Eko-Yi, with its practitioners of neo-Buddhism; and ultimately, to the secret of Machinehood itself.

Meanwhile, Nithya, Welga’s sister-in-law—while investigating a mysterious physical condition that Welga is suffering from—discovers evidence of serious corporate malfeasance in the production of bio-enhancing pills. Her attempts to glean more information—at first, mysteriously blocked—ultimately lead her to the enigmatic figure of Josephine Lee, a one-time conscientious objector, and from there, back to the mysterious Machinehood, and to a future that might change what it means to be human.

Machinehood is a grimly realistic vision of the near future. This is no chilling dystopia, with an easily identifiable totalitarian power centre, but rather, a series of “micro-dystopias,” so to say, which together constitute a distinctly unappealing world for most of the people who live in it. Indeed, it’s a world where the very possibility of alternatives appears to have been irrevocably foreclosed, just by virtue of the sheer inertia that it has gathered:

Welga’s dreams of making the world a better place had crumbled one after another, like blox swathed in inert matter. (p. 70)

For example, at the beginning, we see how people—including security contractors—live-telecast their work and compete for “tips”: a true monetisation of performativity, the beginnings of which are visible in our world today (other contemporary near-future novels, such as Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits/The City Within, also experiment with similar ideas). This is a world where the market economy has truly become the market society, with the logic of commodification percolating into all spheres (including that of protest and dissent):

“Yes. Human shields cost more, but we’re good publicity for our clients,” Hassan said. “When we get hurt, people feel bad about it, and they see our pain as a penalty for the client. We humanize them. Protesting is the art of agitating for your cause without causing real harm, which would be bad for the protesters’ reputations. They want attention and donations. We want to show that our client is only defending themself and feels the protester’s pain.” (p. 11)

Drugs and pills are at the heart of this world: there are references to a previous era of mass death, and a consistent sense that humanity is living on the edge—without the drugs and pills, the body would be immediately vulnerable to a range of pathogens that would wipe out large populations of the planet. There is home genetic engineering, with its predictably tragic consequences (readers will draw connections with Nancy Kress’s Sea Change). And there is, of course, a history of regulation and deregulation, shortcuts around medical ethics in pursuit of profit, where even the principled have to turn law-breakers in order to secure anything in the neighbourhood of justice. In one way, the novel reads almost as a science-fiction illustration of Karl Polanyi’s famous argument of the double-movement: although much further down the road than the time that Polanyi was writing, Machinehood depicts a constant push-and-pull between a descent into an ever greater economistic society and a growing backlash to it (one of whose channels is the Machinehood).

Machinehood is not simply, however, a frighteningly convincing portrayal of a possible near-future. At a deeper, philosophical level, S. B. Divya interrogates questions around sentience, intelligence, consciousness, and being human. At its most direct, this is accomplished at the beginnings of chapters using extracts from the manifesto of Machinehood, where longstanding shibboleths about the borders between human/machine, the meaning of intelligence, and what qualifies an entity to have rights, are set up, examined, and overthrown. This, of course, speaks to an ongoing debate about these very issues: recent research has shown that our intuition about what we call intelligence might itself be anthropocentric, with other species displaying forms and patterns of conduct that is very different from ours, and yet falls within the widespread conception of intelligence and its constitutive parts (problem-solving abilities, for example). In Machinehood, we see a world where those questions have an even greater moral force and urgency, as the self-contained human body is on the verge of breaking down.

The philosophical questions, however, are not separate from the world itself, but rather, integral to it: the Machinehood’s stated goal of redrawing—or eliminating—the boundaries between human and machine comes from a revulsion with a world where people are forced to “destroy … our bodies in the service of our work” (p. 321). In other words, one response to the extreme gig-ification of life, where the sale of human labour power has become ubiquitous, is to change what it means to be human itself. The neo-Buddhist gloss that some of the novel’s characters put on this may not be entirely convincing at all times, but the idea—and its treatment—are powerful, no less because of how embedded they are in the novel’s worldbuilding.

All this makes for a compelling story that moves, often seamlessly, between the poles of grandeur and the quotidian: Nithya’s pregnancy (and the difficulties she has with her religious-minded husband) and Welga’s memories of her mother flow in and around the questions raised by the Machinehood. Machinehood thus is squarely in the tradition of science fiction that fears to tackle neither the personal, nor the political—and at the same time.



Gautam Bhatia is an Indian speculative fiction writer, and the co-ordinating editor of Strange Horizons. He is the author of the science fiction duology, The Wall (HarperCollins India, 2020) and The Horizon (HarperCollins India, 2021). Both novels featured on Locus Magazine's year-end recommended reading list, and The Wall was shortlisted for the Valley of Words Award for English-language fiction. His short stories have appeared in The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction and LiveMint magazine. He is based in New Delhi, India.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
Tuesday: Genre Fiction: The Roaring Years by Peter Nicholls 
Wednesday: HellSans by Ever Dundas 
Thursday: Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052-2072 by M. E. O'Brien and Eman Abdelhadi 
Friday: House of the Dragon Season One 
Issue 23 Jan 2023
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Strange Horizons
2 Jan 2023
Welcome, fellow walkers of the jianghu.
Issue 2 Jan 2023
Strange Horizons
Issue 19 Dec 2022
Issue 12 Dec 2022
Issue 5 Dec 2022
Issue 28 Nov 2022
By: RiverFlow
Translated by: Emily Jin
Issue 21 Nov 2022
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