Virtual 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.