A fantastic and philosophical novel that looks at man against machines in a new light
Machine cover is the first novel by SB Divya. She is an electrical engineer based in the United States. Prior to that, she published the collection of short stories “Emergency plans for the Apocalypse” in 2019, containing the excellent news Duration who was a finalist for the prestigious Nebula Award in 2016. His stories fall primarily within the realm of “hard” science fiction that are firmly rooted in scientific concepts and theories.
Machine cover in many ways is a fantastic and philosophical addition to his previous work. This, along with its structure which mimics that of a thriller, makes the book much more accessible to a wider audience.
But before I start to analyze this, I want to talk about a concept called Kayfabe in professional wrestling. Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines it as “staged performances and the act of keeping the illusion out of the ring”.
If you were like me and grew up near a working TV in the gloriously unregulated days of Indian late night cable TV in the late 90s and early 2000s, you would be familiar with WWE, Wrestlemania, etc. completely fictitious. The “wrestlers” with fancy stage names like “The Rock” and “The Undertaker” weren’t actually athletes but looked more like actors. They had fictional stories, grudges, quarrels, gadgets, etc. The wrestlers also maintained this “reality” within the direct or indirect presence of the general public and kept their stage characters out of the ring, etc. There was a collective suspension of disbelief or a shared alternate reality where all this ridiculous nonsense was presented as genuine and not staged.
But wait a second, I can hear you thinking. This is a review of a sci-fi thriller! Why are you talking about men dressed in bright colors pretending to hit each other? This is because Kayfabe as a concept can be applied to the online personalities we have of ourselves and the image we give of ourselves to the world.
While writing this review I had the chance to listen to the author in an interview and she said something that really stood out to me – that because of social media, “life itself becomes performative” – people are extremely aware of the way they live their lives. lives and show up every second. Well I want you to think about something – how many times have you put a pic of a new dress on Instagram? Or did you tweet an article about the latest book everyone is talking about? You probably did this because you think people will like it a lot and they will think that you are trendy and / or smart. It is also a form of digital Kayfabe.
But Kayfabe can also be used as a conceptual lens to watch the story SB Divya writes in Machine cover – to understand the basic mechanisms which animate the framework of the story as well as the characters themselves, and the interaction with the antagonists.
The world of Machinehood is a world where no one has privacy. Swarms of microscopic robots are recording what everyone else is doing all the time and uploading it to the internet for everyone to see. It is in the very literal sense of the concept of panopticon that philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault speak of.
The panopticon is a very complex concept, but I will try to moult it here. Imagine that you are in your cabin. It’s a slow afternoon, so you’re slumped in your chair and scrolling through the memes on Twitter. Your boss walks into the room, then you suddenly sit up, collapse the browser tab, and pretend you’re working on a spreadsheet instead. Now imagine that your boss is still in the room and even though he is not looking at you right now, there is no way for you to know it, so you act as if you are being watched all the time and regulate your behavior accordingly. The characters in Machinehood know that other people are probably watching them, which affects their decision making and the action plans they take throughout the story.
It also changes the flow of information. Secrets are very difficult to keep, and anything a character discovers is shared with others almost immediately.
But back to Kayfabe! The protagonist, Welga Ramirez is a celebrity. As a “shield” or bodyguard of a “financier” or an industrialist who produces and searches for “pills” that increase human efficiency and brain power to let them function and compete with the bots that have increasingly dominated the economic landscape, she and she must protect the funder from protesters and attacks from activists opposed to these augmented technologies. Unfortunately, in the world of Machine cover, if you are an activist, your cause receives tips and money for the quality of the protest or its interest in the attention – then as a bodyguard you also get paid to act dramatically, perform a plot, jump in the path of a bullet in a filmic way etc.
Of course, it’s all fun and playful until a new terrorist group called Machinehood kills Welga’s client and breaks the rules of the carefully constructed choreography that has happened so far. Welga finds herself out of work and seeks revenge.
Superficially, the book may seem similar to other bodyguard thrillers gone awry like “Man on Fire” or “Closer” – and it follows a lot of those same procedural rhythms – the protagonist is recovering from his injuries, begins to investigate the antagonist, collects clues and deeds to solve the story.
But for me the most interesting thing is how she defines the long term consequences of living in a society where you are always filmed, all the time. Usually in books like 1984 it is said that the hero wants privacy, he doesn’t like to be spied on all the time, but Welga doesn’t like want to privacy – what she considers important is being in contact with her family and friends and being able to monitor them all the time.
In the same interview, SB Divya talks about her own experience of immigrating to the United States and her inability to stay in touch with family and friends in India. She noticed that much of American science fiction reflected an individualistic culture where the protagonists didn’t have a lot of family connections – their origins, etc. do not appear. According to her, this makes no sense. People’s relationships with family members influence the way they “go about their lives and the decisions they make” and she tries to address this issue by including Welga’s adult siblings, her in-laws, his parents as important secondary figures.
For example, Welga’s sister-in-law, Nithya, who adds an Indian connection by being based in Chennai, acts both as a Watson-like character (a contrast of normality as opposed to the action-packed celebrity life of Welga) as well as a source of help. and research.
Characters aside, it’s the setting in which the story unfolds – of a society so dependent on attention – that drives the central red herring of the plot. The Terrorists of Machinehood claim to be sensitive Artificial Intelligence (AI) who want other robots and AI to be treated on an equal basis with humanity and issue a manifesto demanding equal rights for them.
But deep down, it’s a bait and a switch. In fact, they are not AI at all, but technologically augmented humans who pretend to be AI and who are very good at creating a lot of social media buzz and being afraid of themselves. And this is where the fundamental brilliance of the book lies. The villain we expected is not the villain we actually meet. And these villains have their own stories and motivations that drive them, which we understand through letters, diary entries, etc., that the protagonist unearths during the course of the novel – so much so that at the climax of the book, when Welga finally faces them, we are fully invested in the sequel.
A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell analyzed many thrillers to come up with a typology that I visualized here. According to his argument, most thrillers fall into four types, all of which seek to establish, restore, preserve or gradually improve a status quo about how society organizes itself. Machine cover falls outside of these four types, because towards the end our protagonist becomes more and more empathetic with the bad guys and is about to perform a turn of the head (another term of pro wrestling storylines) and join them. . His nascent recognition that the current status quo in human society is untenable – and that the bad guys could in fact be law a radical transformation is needed – is in conflict with his own sense of justice and morals which relentlessly oppose their violent methods. The way she reconciles these two opposing thoughts is for me personally one of the best parts of the book.
(N Chandrasekhar Ramanujan is a product designer and researcher working in the tech industry. He is also an aspiring author, with a short story recently published in January 2019, as well as entries in various competitions. He lives in Pondicherry.)
About the book:
Machinehood – SB Divya; Gallery / Saga Press; 416 pages
Discover the book on Amazon