“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.