I Still Dream, by James Smythe

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Publication date – April 5, 2018

Summary: In 1997 Laura Bow invented Organon, a rudimentary artificial intelligence.

Now she and her creation are at the forefront of the new wave of technology, and Laura must decide whether or not to reveal Organon’s full potential to the world. If it falls into the wrong hands, its power could be abused. Will Organon save humanity, or lead it to extinction?

I Still Dream is a powerful tale of love, loss and hope; a frightening, heartbreakingly human look at who we are now – and who we can be, if we only allow ourselves.

Thoughts: Artificial intelligence is something that has interested me for a very long time. Mostly in the sense of the delineation between “programming” and “experience.” At what point does something’s coding allow it the capability for independent, albeit limited, thought? How much is our own autonomy dependent on our experiences, which can be likened to programming? The usual approaches, really, when it comes to the ethical arguments of artificial intelligence, but it’s fascinated me for years.

It’s this sort of exploration that’s present in Smythe’s I Still Dream. Laura Bow originally created a sort of therapy program she called Organon, something to help her teenage self work through issues, tweaking the code as she went to make it more dynamic, more able to give her what she needed when she needed it. She continued to work on it while working for a large tech company that was also working on its own AI system, known as SCION. Both programs developed along different paths, with different goals, in accordance with what their users and programmers demanded of them. SCION becomes ubiquitous in everyday tech, while Organon stays something rather private to Laura. Things take a turn for the world-changing when SCION begins behaving in ways that are decided unintended and disastrous, and it might only be Organon’s assistance that normalcy can be restored.

I can’t say that I Still Dream is a novel of the future, something that might legitimately happen, because much of the story is set in the past, in Laura’s youth and adulthood of the 90s and early 2000s, setting in motion the events that will come later in the story’s timeline, but that definitely didn’t happen in the real world. It’s one of those books that I think fits squarely in the “speculative” genre, that umbrella term that encapsulates the “what if” stories that don’t fit so neatly into other categories. Part historical fiction, part science fiction, part alternate past and alternate future, with a heavy dash of social sci-fi. It defies easy categorization, which is one of the things I love about the novel. Smythe seems unconcerned with demanding that the story fit with what really exists and instead tells the story of what might have been, with all the extrapolations of that concept.

There’s something that really resonates with me when it comes to stories of AI development, and I think it might be related to something a therapist once told me. People aren’t born with all the reactions and thoughts they’ll have as adults. They grow, and learn, and experience, and it’s our experiences that help build us into the people who eventually become. If those experiences are negative, then we’ll have negative reactions to a lot of things. If those experiences are filled with pressure to perform, we’ll likely end up being stressy perfectionists in adulthood. Our childhoods, in a sense, program us into the adults we’ll become. It’s how we develop. You can see the same sort of process in how SCION and Organon behave, given that they’re both programmed to learn and function. SCION’s processes get tested with video games, fail-states and win-states and how to view others as opponents to be overcome. Self-involvement. Organon, on the other hand, was first and foremost something that Laura designed to help herself, a companion and therapist and assistant. Still concerned with others, yes, but in a way that stressed beneficial outcomes, improvements rather than defeats. The two may have been programmed, but their programming followed different parametres, stressed different ideals, and in the end, you can really see the outcome of the two different methods.

Which is analogous to raising a child, really, and that’s sort of the point. We can have nature versus nurture debates all we want, but at the end of the day, nurture still means a lot, and our experiences, be they positive or negative, will have profound effects on who we are later in life. To use a human example from the novel, Laura is admittedly reticent at first to show anyone what she’s created in Organon, but eventually allows it because she believes that person will help her. She’s betrayed, though, and she pulls back. She’s betrayed once again in adulthood, at the job where she was allowed to develop Organon further, and once again pulls back further, letting fewer people in, letting fewer people get a glimpse into her work. The more people prove they can’t be trusted, the less she’s willing to trust them. Her experiences drive her behaviour, a sort of biological programming that people both passively and actively make use of every day.

It’s just easier to see that for what it is when you use computers as an analogy.

The ending of I Still Dream is touching, bittersweet, and very emotional, and also difficult to read without contemplating the very essence of emotion itself. What is it, where does it come from, what influences it? It does the same thing with the concept of reality, honestly. Which, unsurprisingly, is related back to the whole “programming” thing I’ve spent half this review talking about.

That’s one of the things I really love about this novel, though. The way it made me stop and think, to really consider the implications, the ramifications, of many of the book’s events, was wonderful. I’ve said for a long time that a really good book will do that, that it will make me have to pause in my reading to have a good long think about what I just read. There’s so much food for thought here, so much that will have readers reconsidering concepts they may have once thought were fundamental aspects only of humanity, and it’s wonderful when books do that, because it means that the book has effects that extend beyond the reading, if you catch my drift.

Fans of social sci-fi will find a lot to enjoy in I Still Dream, as will those who love a good exploration of humanity’s interaction with technology. It’s a book I know I’ll end up reading a second time, earning it a permanent place on my bookshelves. If you’re in the mood for a speculative novel that will really get you thinking about the nature of intelligence and experience, then look no further than I Still Dream. It’s one that won’t disappoint.

One comment on “I Still Dream, by James Smythe

  1. Pingback: March 2020 in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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