In the past month, I've drifted into a sub-sub-genre of science fiction which I'd thought was dead, or at least staggering around in feeble circles, muttering about the Golden Age: stories about artificial intelligence in the future, and how humans might deal with it. I didn't have a particular grudge against the genre; I'd just assumed that fifty years of subtle and unsubtle exploration had more or less covered our collective bases. But then I read Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice (2013), Catherynne Valente's award-winning novella Silently and Very Fast (2012), and now Anne Charnock's A Calculated Life. And realized I was wrong.
Decent AI stories aren't really about sentient robots or self-aware computers, of course. They're about human nature and the very definition of human-ness. In the past, this theme has privileged the human perspective of their new robot friends, through a kind of fictional application of the Turing Test: can machines mimic human behavior to the extent that we can’t tell them apart?
But Leckie, Valente, and Charnock (along with other authors, like Charles Stross in Neptune's Brood  and Madeline Ashby in vN  and iD ) have written different kinds of stories. They're quite unalike, but they operate on a similar principle: it doesn't matter so much what humans think of their robotic creations—it matters how the robots judge and know themselves. The robots tell their own stories here, and their fundamental capacity for depth and emotion is never called into question. Instead, the question is their own power of self-determination and the relationships they form. Which gives these stories the potential to go in new and surprising directions.
In A Calculated Life, our heroine is Jayna, an analytical statistician working in future-Manchester. She's very, very good with numbers, because she's a simulant—a semi-robotic, test-tube human endowed with incredible powers of cognition. Simulants live together in Rest Stations, where everything from their food to their bedtime is carefully controlled. Each of them is "leased" (read: owned) by corporations looking to profit off their hyper-intelligence. In Jayna's world, the lines between freedom and enslavement are murky.
The lines between humans and robots are similarly blurred. Certain lucky humans who meet the genetic and social requirements are given neural implants to make them bionics, which are smarter and more productive. The unlucky rest of us, termed organics, bumble around with the clunky brains that evolution gave us, relegated to the fringes of society. Even the organics, though, have been immunized against any anti-social tendencies, like violence, addiction, and over-indulgence. It's a quiet, gradual dystopia, littered with eerie statements like "Look how safe it is for everyone now: hardly any crime. You've all been liberated" (p. 79). Collective shudder.
Jayna's story progresses slowly. It reminded me of a milder 1984, which spends a great deal of time meandering through A Day in the Life of Winston before anything interesting happens. A day in Jayna's life is fairly dull: she lives an ordered, meticulous existence, which involves going to work, socializing with other simulants, eating bland cafeteria food, and laying out her clothing in exactly the same pattern every evening. But subtle problems emerge. First, a few of Jayna's mathematical predictions turn out to be wrong, and she worries that she’s too isolated from normal human life. Then there are rumors that other simulants like herself have been recalled for their erratic behavior. Then her organic coworker, Dave, invites her to visit him in the cramped apartments set aside for regular humans.
And then, just as the oppressive sense of dread reaches its peak, and the real action begins—the book ends. It's one of those endings that makes you gasp and swear, and stomp around waving your Kindle and explaining to your cat that things were just getting good. But I'd advise readers not to panic. The two epilogues are some of the best, most emotional writing in the book, and Charnock pulled me back from the brink of total disappointment.
Jayna's internal evolution is the most successful and interesting part of the book. It could easily have been a simple narrative about a robot finding her soul, but it's not. It's more about Jayna's discovery of the limitations of her world, and the realization that her life is hemmed in by subtle boundaries. She realizes, for example, that the simulants' sense of smell has been genetically dampened, in order to repress the unstable connections between smell, memory, and emotion. She realizes, too, that the terrifying and rewarding processes surrounding sex, reproduction, and parenthood (the processes of the human family) have been denied to her. Her journey from naïve cooperation to awareness to resistance is well-paced and relatable—isn't that the basic process of growing up?
Running alongside Jayna's narrative is the unfolding of the twenty-first-century dystopia that surrounds her. Unlike certain popular dystopias which involve governments so blatantly cruel that any real human population would rise up and overthrow them in about six months, Charnock's dystopia is actually believable. It's very like our own world, but slightly stretched at the edges—corporate interests reign unchecked, the class structure is rigid, and technology has taken us well beyond the limitations of our synapses and gray matter. Charnock is a subtle worldbuilder, but a convincing one.
Her style of writing also perfectly matches her subject. There's a certain technical precision in her tone, an emphasis on exact detail, that is only found in journalists or people with scientific training (Charnock happens to be both). In almost any other circumstance, I might have been tempted to describe it as restrained and dry—but for a book written from the perspective of a partially robotic statistician, it’s ideal. For instance, as Jayna lies in bed, staring around her room:
And then, the dressing gown hanging from a single hook on the back of the plan-faced door. Jayna became aware she was describing how the garment hung as a set of equations—approximated, for she wasn't trying too hard—equations that described the peaks and troughs of all the folds. She allowed the dinner conversation to seep into her thoughts. Do bionics like Hester and Benjamin play with mathematics in the same way? If I were an organic, even a smart organic like Dave, would I see a hanging garment and think about the folds or would I simply . . . see it? (p. 32)
It's Jayna’s voice, careful and removed, in every sentence.
For those looking for a summer blockbuster kind of robot story, A Calculated Life is not for you. There are no explosions or fight scenes, and the Fate of Humankind is never once hanging in the balance. But for readers who want a smart, subtle exploration of human emotion and intelligence, this is an excellent choice.
Alix E. Harrow works as a history curriculum writer and regularly posts speculative fiction reviews at Fantasy Literature and her personal blog. She lives in a romantically dilapidated farmhouse with her partner in Kentucky.