In these two dark visions of the future, empathy provides a much-needed source of light.
In the future, the world has been dominated by advanced artificial intelligences, and the majority of humanity has chosen to live entirely online. The Caspian Republic presents itself as a traditionalist utopia, the last bastion of humanity. In reality, the country portrayed in When the Sparrow Falls is a repressive surveillance state ruled by a single paranoid anti-AI party. Dissidence can get you killed—assuming you don’t starve first.
This carefully controlled political ecosystem is thrown into jeopardy after the death of an anti-AI journalist named Paulo Xirau. During Xirau’s autopsy, officials learn the unsettling truth: The writer, a mouthpiece of the party, was in fact an AI himself. In the aftermath of this discovery, State Security Agent Nikolai South is asked to escort Xirau’s wife, Lily, who is revealed to be another AI, as she identifies her husband’s remains. Despite his initial distrust and revulsion, Nikolai soon forms an attachment to Lily, beginning an unlikely friendship that will test the mettle of Nikolai’s morals—and potentially the strength of the Caspian Republic itself.
Neil Sharpson’s debut novel (based on his play The Caspian Sea) is surprisingly retro. Part John le Carré, part Kurt Vonnegut, When the Sparrow Falls feels more like a Cold War-era spy novel than a story set after the singularity. Part of this is aesthetic; the Caspian Republic is a country without a stitch of modern technology in sight, full of poorly bound notepads, stacks of paperwork and face-to-face meetings. The threat of AI takeover is ever present, but it is abstract, more akin to the looming atomic threat during the 1950s than an actual impending attack.
The other portion of the novel’s Cold War aura is in the nature of the Caspian Republic itself. The hidden eyes of Party Security watch every move from cobweb-filled cracks, an embargo threatens to drive the entire populace to starvation, and a series of purges purify the party and country from within. Together these variables add to a disconcerting, uneasy whole.
While When the Sparrow Falls projects an aura of a dingy, rain-soaked East Berlin, We Have Always Been Here creates a world that is stiflingly sterile and bright. Lena Nguyen’s debut novel tells the story of Grace Park, a socially awkward psychologist tasked with monitoring the 13-person crew of the Deucalion, a ship sent to survey Eos, a strange icy planet far from civilization.
Park’s position as psychologist immediately puts her at odds with the rest of the crew, who think that she has been sent to spy on them by the Interstellar Frontier. To make matters worse, however, Park prefers the company of the ship’s androids to her fellow humans. In a society where “clunkers” are at best tolerated and often despised, this oddity leads to rising tensions. And when members of the crew start falling prey to waking nightmares and violent fits of insanity, paranoia sets in on the windowless ship. As crew members fall to all-consuming delusions, the terror of the unknown grips Park. The question soon becomes not what the crew of the Deucalion will find on Eos but whether any of them will survive the journey.
Nguyen maintains a delicate balance in We Have Always Been Here. The slow, creeping unease aboard the Deucalion is punctuated by memories from Park’s past that soften the growing horror of what’s happening on the ship and slow down what otherwise might be a rather straightforward psychological thriller. Flashbacks explore the depth of Park’s relationship with her android caregivers, providing a soothing counterpoint to the anti-android animus on the ship. However, her memories of violent anti-android protests also highlight the lack of regard for android life and the latent distrust for both artificial intelligences and the people who associate themselves too closely with them.
When the Sparrow Falls and We Have Always Been Here show startlingly different yet equally dark views of the future. Sharpson’s future is a mirror of our past, thrusting us into the surveillance state of regimes gone by. Nguyen’s is full of precise lines and icy sharpness, creating a world that is simultaneously oppressively expansive and uncommonly claustrophobic. Despite their differences, the thrillers share a surprising theme: empathy. Nguyen and Sharpson have given us two different views of what life with machines could be like—and the challenges that we will have to deal with as we encounter intelligences dissimilar to our own. But if you aren’t in the philosophical mood, both books share something else as well: insomnia-inducing plots that will leave you looking over your shoulder long after the stories conclude.