Virtual Girl, Amy Thomson

virtual-girl-coverVirtual Girl, Amy Thomson (1993)
Review by Simon Petrie

Arnold Brompton is a renegade programmer who develops an AI personality named Maggie, which he ports into an artificial humaniform body. He does this partly because he can, partly because his father has repeatedly sought to thwart him in this endeavour, and partly because he craves companionship. It’s a hazardous undertaking: artificial intelligence is a proscribed field of study, and the discovery of Maggie’s identity as an artificial construct would lead to her destruction and Arnold’s incarceration. It’s imperative, therefore, that Maggie learn how to flawlessly present herself as human, rather than machine. But is a sedentary, basement-dwelling computer nerd with a dose of street smarts really the best instructor of human behaviour?

Maggie is programmed for full obedience towards her creator Arnold, and to begin with she must, indeed, depend upon him. But Arnold makes a mistake, and Maggie is forced to choose between subservience to Arnold and her own survival. She chooses the more interesting option.

Thomson excels at characterisation and at giving voice to the thoughts, fears, and motivations of characters who can be very far from human. In Maggie, she has created an entity who, while technically lacking human emotion, does naturally engage our empathy, and Maggie’s deep-outsider perspective offers several intriguing points of analysis on aspects of human behaviour which might, in other contexts, be utterly unremarkable. Maggie’s important human reference points include Arnold, who undergoes a sinister but plausible transformation during the story (typified by his subsequent marginalisation of her identity as merely a “bag lady”); four-year-old Claire, whose innate acceptance of Maggie does much to affirm the robot’s sense of being and belonging; Azul, a hooker and aspiring dance-musician, who adopts Maggie and forms a significant bond with her; and Marie, Azul’s landlady, an Anna Madrigal type who, among other things, helps Maggie to understand certain aspects of human interaction which had, up until then, remained almost completely opaque.

I wouldn’t classify Virtual Girl as a high-octane read (by analogy, for example, with Madeline Ashby’s similarly-themed but distinctly more violent vN, which I believe may have been somewhat influenced by Thomson’s novel); though the story certainly shuttles from place to place (driven by Maggie’s need to keep on the move, so as to evade detection by the Bromptons), there’s plenty of opportunity for reflection and a sense of (mostly) peaceful existence as Maggie learns about humans, and about herself. There’s also a (mostly) plausible extrapolation of near-future US society (circa, I believe, the 2040s) – maglevs, solar panels, neural implants – though it’s almost unavoidable that the 1990s-vision computational detail is incorrect in parts. (The titbit I found hardest to swallow was the now-quaint notion that Maggie’s complete sensorium, a year’s worth of memories, and her astonishingly complex operating system would all fit on eight CDs, around 6GB total capacity by my estimation, as if CDs would even be used for this application in a quarter-century from today.) But provided you don’t insist on complete predictive accuracy (which is always a hazardous undertaking in any work of SF), the book manages admirably to ring true. It’s a very accomplished piece of character-driven hard SF, and it delivers on several levels.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.

Virtual Girl, Amy Thomson

Virtual Girl, Amy Thomson (1993)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

Virtual Girl is Amy Thomson’s first novel. The title is a bit of a misnomer because, unlike the software constructs in Otherland, Amy’s heroine is a full-blown android. Created as an AI, Molly is downloaded into an artificial body and the book is the story of her efforts to survive in human society. The book is, in effect, Data for grown-ups. Amy eschews the abstruse philosophical debates and cute jokes about emotion chips that beset Star Trek’s efforts to treat the question of artificial life seriously. Instead she focuses on immediate practical issues like how to learn which of the vast flood of inputs that the world presents are worth taking notice of. The only Star Trek like issue is Molly’s need to define her relationship with Arnold, the man who created her but who treats her like a possession. The book is as much an allegory of slavery as anything else.

Allegory indeed is a theme of the book. In an effort to keep his illegal research secret, Arnold lives as a hobo, doing everything he can to keep off official records. When she is accidentally separated from him, Molly knows no other life and continues to live amongst tramps and prostitutes. This automatically puts her amongst a bunch of other people who are on the edge of acceptable society. By now she is good at passing for human, but sooner or later her true nature will have to come out. Amy uses the setting to provide a perfect excuse: Molly’s landlady turns out to be a transvestite, so who is the bigger fake?

All in all, the book is a fine start. It could be better. If I ever write a novel I will make sure that I go back and re-write the first few chapters from scratch because I’ve seen so many first novels where the author takes a while to get the hang of things. But by the end Amy has established a confident control over the medium. There are two more books to go, and I’m looking forward to them.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

The Color of Distance, Amy Thomson

The Color of Distance, Amy Thomson (1995)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

The Color of Distance is about an Earth biologist on a survey mission who crash lands in the jungle of an alien world. By the time Juna is able to get to a working radio her colleagues have given her up for dead and are on the way to the jump point. They don’t have the fuel to return immediately, but promise to come back in a few years time. Juna is left to survive by herself, and it isn’t going to be easy.

To start with, humans are severely allergic to just about everything on the alien world. Without her environment suit, Juna will go into anaphylactic shock very quickly. Fortunately, Juna has discovered an intelligent life form. They might be able to help her survive, if she can just learn to communicate with them.

The Tendu look a bit like large tree frogs. As with many Earth frogs, they can change their skin colour. What started as camouflage and simple colour signals has evolved into a sophisticated symbolic language, presumably along the lines of Egyptian or Mayan hieroglyphs. Tendu don’t have the vocal apparatus to talk, and Juna can’t change her skin colour. So much for the Star Trek universal communicator.

Once communication is underway there is Tendu society to cope with. Like human forest dwellers, the Tendu live in harmony with their surroundings, taking just enough from the forest to survive and ensuring that it will continue into the future. That makes them very keen on population control which, if you are a frog and lay 100 eggs each time you get pregnant, is an interesting problem.

By now you should be starting to see that Amy is not just writing about aliens. In the very best traditions of SF she is helping us look at human problems by creating an alien society that throws a completely different light on the issue. The environment and population control are issues that tend to bring out the worst in human thought processes. We need books like this that help us look at the big questions in a new light.

The other thing that a good first contact novel must do is present an alien society that is both different and believable. Once again, Amy is right on the button. As far as classical technology goes, the Tendu are nowhere. There’s no use for a wheel in a rain forest. They have managed to invent the spade, the blowpipe and the fishing net, and that is about it. Biotechnology, however, is another matter entirely. The Tendu have venom spurs on their wrists which were presumably originally used to stun or kill prey, but are now capable of delivering any chemical the Tendu bodies are capable of synthesising. Their medical skills are light years ahead of humanity. To them, any creature that can’t cure a cold when it gets one is a hopeless primitive.

As you might guess, Juna survives her exile, and the final section of the book is devoted to the return of the human survey ship. It has taken Juna four years to understand the Tendu. Now she has just a few days to help her fellow humans do the same. And given humanity’s track record with foreign cultures, doing so might just be condemning her froggy friends to slavery or extinction.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.