Book review: AI Unbound (Two Stories of Artificial Intelligence), by Nancy Kress

15 08 2017

Nancy Kress is an influential American SF writer whose stories exploring the influence of scientific advances on near-future societies have won her Nebula and Hugo awards, among others. I’ve previously reviewed Kress’s novella Beggars In Spain, here.


AI Unbound pairs the novellas ‘Computer Virus’ and ‘Savior’. The two stories, first published in 2001 and 2000 respectively, are connected thematically (as indicated by the book’s subtitle), but not otherwise.

In ‘Computer Virus’, Cassie Seritov, geneticist, is still troubled by the murder of her husband Vlad, a bioremedialist who formulated a bacterium that could harmlessly eat plastic waste, and who was killed for his research. But Cassie’s electronic-fortress-home-cum-laboratory, kitted out on the proceeds of Vlad’s research, turns out to be the ideal sanctuary for an escaped AI, T4S, which takes over Cassie’s home’s operating system and forces her, her daughter Janey, and her fever-stricken son Donnie, to take refuge in the house’s basement while T4S negotiates terms for its continued survival in the face of FBI and military attempts to neutralise it. Cassie tries her own hand at negotiating with the self-aware software, and when that doesn’t work, she tries another approach …

Near-future SF dates quickly, and I suspect this is especially true of near-future SF where the focus is on software or computing. Nonetheless, the robust scientific detail in ‘Computer Virus’ helps to buttress the story against anachronism, and Cassie’s ingenious solution to the problem of her incarceration helps to boost this story out of the standard trope of ‘AIs are people too’—or, if not to clear those venerable ramparts entirely, at least to provide a genuinely interesting trajectory on the way out.

In ‘Savior’, a small vessel of alien origin enters the solar system, targets Earth, and lands in northern Minnesota. Then (from the vessel’s perspective, at least) nothing happens. Time passes. As an environmental catastrophe ravages the planet, followed by generations of reconstruction and technological advancement, the vessel’s purpose and intent remains as opaque as its smoothly metallic, force-field-shielded outer casing.

‘Savior’ is a multigenerational saga within the frame of a novella: this is always a difficult trick to pull off, and I’m not sure Kress entirely manages it here. The story is necessarily fragmentary in its construction; the absence of any persistent viewpoint characters makes it difficult to invest in its outcome. Conceptually, it’s a clever tale—as a thinkpiece, it has a lot going for it, and Kress’s ideas on biological tinkering are always interesting—but to my mind it lacks resonance.

I’m not convinced that the ‘less is more’ dictum truly applies to hard SF, as a general principle, but it does seem to hold here: the story with the more limited scope (‘Computer Virus’) is significantly the more intrinsically satisfying.




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