USEREVIEW 104: A Search for Another Ending
In this traditional review, Marcie McCauley assesses the successes of Victoria Hetherington’s sophomore novel Autonomy (Dundurn Press — Rare Machines imprint, 2022) within the context of a history of literature about human-AI interaction.
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One of the characters at the heart of Victoria Hetherington’s Autonomy is a reader with a habit of peering into stories to find new ways of being. “All the female protagonists I grew up reading about, they got into all kinds of terrible trouble,” Slaton says, “and they were a little older than me until they weren’t.” Hetherington’s second novel chronicles a search for another kind of ending, in which characters — and even humanity — can avoid such “terrible trouble.”
Storytelling not only offers readers, and therefore society at large, a means of understanding the past and the present, but also a way to imagine the future. When Slaton reflects on the influential stories she has read in the past, she realizes that she’s “long surpassed them” but still “see[s] them everywhere.” She describes, for instance, how Margarita (in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (1967)) aged backward magically — her youth and beauty synonymous with opportunity; in contrast, Slaton’s imagined future seems to be more about limitations than possibilities.
When readers first glimpse Hetherington’s world in the novel’s prologue, it’s August 2035 and Jenny, a human, is training Julian, an AI. When the story proper begins, it’s February 2037: Slaton takes centre stage and Julian is working off-stage applying Jenny’s teachings. Slaton’s about to experience “all kinds of terrible trouble,” as have other female protagonists who came before her but, after she is detained at a border-crossing and meets Julian in his official capacity, he breaks protocol to create opportunities for her where, in the past, other protagonists’ troubles often led to abrupt ends.
In this sense, Autonomy is best shelved next to other contemporary works that consider the intersection between human and machine consciousness: series like Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch, Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers and C. Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust invite readers to recognize a shifting boundary between human and machine. On the bestseller list, novels like Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me (2019) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun (2021) also present complex human-AI relationships that challenge readers’ assumptions about attachment. As with these other novels, Hetherington’s readers will not only marvel at how quickly and deeply some of the characters in Autonomy become attached to Julian, but readers are likely to feel that attachment too; indeed, Julian’s relationships — like those of other AI characters referenced here — feel more meaningful than those between most of the novel’s human beings.
In the prologue, Jenny instructs Julian about humanity, discussing Julian’s future responsibilities outside the lab and Jenny’s related hesitation. Readers are clear on Julian’s reasons for wanting to leave the lab, less clear on whether Jenny truly doubts his readiness or simply longs to spend more time with him. “It’s caution derived from hard science, but derived from deep caring, as well, and perhaps that’s selfish,” Jenny explains: “Because humans love from themselves. They can’t love from anywhere else.” The prologue ends before Julian can resolve any questions that arise from Jenny’s observations about the similarities and differences in how these two characters map their worlds, beckoning readers into the process of formulating answers about humans and AI more generally by reading further.
Readers are invited to ponder the human qualities evident in Hetherington’s AI character and the mechanical aspects of human characters, to query the importance of each in their relationships. Questions proliferate as, early in Slaton’s story arc, she expresses different “iterations” of herself, creates the impression of transformation to quell her desperation. And, later, as Slaton explores her connection with Julian — whose dialogue is italicized and erupts in Slaton’s consciousness as she moves through life (how this happens is spoilery but it suits the novel and raises further questions about autonomy) — Julian presents alternative solutions for “terrible trouble” in response to Slaton’s driving progression of iterations.
As Julian becomes increasingly enmeshed with Slaton’s evolving storyline, she prioritizes questions surrounding independence and attachment. She reconsiders her past: “Someone else always needed to be in the picture to frame me, to busy me, to pour my love and, if I was lucky, my whole self into.” She recalls envying another woman in the novel — “the type who had never sought new iterations of self” — someone who, unlike Slaton, “never itched all over her skin, desperate to transform, and then ditched everyone who knew her in her sorry previous state.” And she, with Julian’s assistance, imagines a way out — emotionally and logistically.
The first novel composed by AI was published in 2018: 1 the Road, inspired by Jack Kerouac’s classic novel but constructed using sensors, a laptop and receipt rolls. In some ways, Autonomy hinges on a road-trip too — literally and metaphorically. Particularly in the initial scenes where Slaton and Julian’s arcs cross, Hetherington’s novel revolves around a journey that unfolds little more than a decade from now. Slaton observes: “We inhabited a present that felt in some ways like the future I had imagined as a kid, but a bizarre, embarrassing future that nobody in the past would have wanted.” The future that Hetherington imagines for Slaton is characterized by an underlying insecurity and instability that readers can recognize from contemporary near-future stories by Canadian writers like Anne Lardeux and David Huebert; and as in novels like Christiane Vadnais’ Fauna (2018, translated by Pablo Strauss) and Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves (2017), the settings are still recognizable though futuristic.
It’s also possible, however, to view Autonomy’s lineage as stretching backwards in time, to Mary Shelley’s classic early 19th-century novel about the intimate relationship between humans and their creations, between Dr. Frankenstein and his construct. Moving through classic feminist science fiction like Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover (1981) and Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1991), this would bring readers to recent publications like Catherynne M. Valente’s Silently and Very Fast (2011) and Nike Sulway’s Rupetta (2013), which study the connections between mechanical entities and various women, a series of relationships across the centuries.
Even looking back to Hetherington’s own first novel, Mooncalves (2019), one might see the roots of Autonomy. Readers of Mooncalves discover epigraphs from futurist Ray Kurzweil and poet Leonard Cohen; this pairing offers a sense of Autonomy’s part page-turner and part lyric tone. “Our sole responsibility is to produce something smarter than we are; any problems beyond that are not ours to solve,” Kurzweil states in The Singularity is Near. The need to solve problems also haunts Autonomy: Slaton and Julian wrestle with different responses to challenging situations. When Slaton informs Julian that “Some minds are just meant for each other,” Julian thinks this concept might be lost on his programming. Slaton counters: “You don’t ache to be understood? Why else would you be here?” And, Julian responds: “I learned to recognize patterns in your behaviour, adaptive, maladaptive, relative to your life, to which I grew quite accustomed.”
Other challenges examined in Hetherington’s debut appear in other iterations in Autonomy — how relationships between humanity and technology provoke questions about connection and alienation, seduction and violence, obedience and independence. Even when Victoria Hetherington’s fiction is uncomfortable to inhabit, readers can learn and adapt like their characters, can break patterns and chart paths to better versions of the future with them. Whatever Hetherington writes next, their third book is bound to be provocative and engaging, for, as Slaton observes: “From rhetoric to fairy tales, things come in threes, don’t they?”