A Strange and Brilliant Light

I don’t get many review copies these days, but every so often Jo Fletcher sends me something that she thinks might be of interest. A Strange and Brilliant Light is one such book. It is a debut novel by Eli Lee, and Jo was quite right to think I would find it interesting.

Probably the most important thing to say about the book is that the author (in her Twitter feed) describes it as “speculative literary fiction”. What that means is that it is a book about characters rather than a more traditional, plot-based science fiction novel. However, the speculative element is still very much there.

The narrative centres on three women: Lal, Janetta and Rose. They happen to be living at a time when an AI revolution is taking place and robot workers called “auts” are taking everyone’s jobs. Lal has subscribed to the idea that hard work is everything and, if only she devotes her entire life to her employer, then happiness will ensue. Her sister, Janetta, does not need to work hard because she’s a genius. Her PhD on AI programming is sure to land her a top job somewhere. But Janetta is much less good at life, and girlfriend trouble is messing with her ability to complete her studies. Rose is Lal’s best friend from school. They start off working together at a franchise café, but while Lal wants to climb the corporate ladder, Rose, whose father was a famous trade unionist, can see how they are being exploited, and will soon be replaced.

The main speculative element is the usual one of robot revolution. Here one of the characters sets out the dilemma:

We both know that sooner or later, somehow or other, AI is going to become conscious. It’s inevitable, isn’t it? And when it does, unless it is programmed to be docile, obedient, essentially not alive, it’s going to rise up and kill us.

Ah yes, the robot version of Great Replacement Theory. We must keep the immigrants from the colonies in their place, or they will rise up and do to us what we have done to them.

Lal thinks that is this all good for corporate profits. Janetta thinks that if she can somehow program the right sort of emotions into the AIs they will be better people than us. Rose knows that the auts will take her job, and those of all her friends and family, unless someone stops them.

So much, so traditional. Where the book gets interesting is that Rose gets involved in a political organisation advocating for something called “source gain”, which is essentially a made-up name for Universal Basic Income. Lee is asking, if the robots take all our jobs, what will that mean for us? Will we have huge amounts of leisure, and a guaranteed income from the government, or will we starve?

I should note, by the way, that the characters live in a made-up world. That is, the world of the book feels like Earth, but the action takes place in a country that does not exist. There are times when the great city of Mejira, where Lal goes to work, reminds me of Singapore. There is also a section where Janetta goes on vacation to somewhere that might be Nepal. But these are only suggestions, and the book should not be taken as being set in those places. It is an interesting approach by Lee, which allows her to set the book in what is presumably a non-white community, while not having to worry about correctly representing the culture.

This being a book by a woman, about three women, there is inevitably a little feminism in there too. I was especially pleased to see Lee skewer left wing men who fancy themselves as intellectuals, because that is one serious real-world trope.

As someone with several decades of IT experience, I have to say that the resolution of the plot is pure Handwavium. Then again, so is the ending of many cyberpunk movies, and Independence Day, so we can hardly complain. This is not a book about programming AI, it is a book about the social issues that will result if AI becomes more all-pervasive than it is already. That’s certainly one of the sorts of science fiction book that needs to be written right now. Not that I think AI will become conscious, but “AI” that is not conscious, or remotely intelligent, but has a heap of in-built biases, is actually taking our jobs and affecting our lives.

book cover
Title: A Strange and Brilliant Light
By: Eli Lee
Publisher: Jo Flecther Books
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
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