Borough Press | 2018 (5 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1997 and 17-year-old Laura Bow has invented a computer interface, a rudimentary artificial intelligence, called Organon. Laura uses it as her diary, telling it every decision she makes, everything she does and everything she feels, including all of her frustrations and sadnesses. Organon effectively becomes Laura’s best friend, learning to ask her simple questions, even to provide an opinion. Laura is a chip off the old block. Her father created SCION, an artificial intelligence now in development by a large corporation. Her father, though, is now gone. He vanished from Laura’s life one day when she was very small and this is something that she must deal with each and every day.
In a succession of jumps, each a decade apart, we follow the development of Organon, which continues to be such an important part of her life, so much so that she isn’t yet prepared to share it. Unlike the developers of SCION who have now sold SCION to the US government. Organon grows as Laura journeys through her life, forming new lifebonds and relationships, ending others, with Organon by her side.
Jame Smythe has been a favourite author of mine ever since I read and marvelled at The Testimony. His science fiction is original and thought-provoking. It is often melancholic and is always memorable. I Still Dream is all of this. It’s such a beautiful and elegant novel which uses the premise of the development of an unusual artificial intelligence over several decades to explore the very human themes of memory, forgetfulness and love. It doesn’t go where you expect. There is a Skynet element here, as we watch what happens to SCION, but Organon is a very different AI to what we’re used to. It doesn’t harm – it heals. The contrast, though, between SCION and Organon is dealt with brilliantly.
At the heart of the novel is Laura. Even more than Organon, Laura’s feelings dominate I Still Dream. The ten-year jumps in narrative lay out her life for us, laying bare her depression, cleverness, insecurities and her love. It’s hard not to fall in love with the teenage Laura of 1997 as she makes her mixtapes, gets into trouble for running up enormous phone bills for using the dial-up internet too often, all the things that I remember so vividly from those years. Not that there was any internet when I was at that age…. Probably just as well. But I remember doing my O Level Computer Studies back in the 1980s and this brought it all back. There is such a realism to this depiction of Laura Bow. James Smythe is so good at making his people, especially his female characters, feel true.
And so I fell in love with the young Laura and this warmth remained to the end when it intensified. I Still Dream is an emotional read. We have the drama of SCION, which feels all too topical and entirely plausible these days, but alongside it we have the intimate human drama and Organon’s role in this is captivating. The author presents such a sensitive and at times very painful picture of the central role of memory in our lives, as well as the devastating consequences of forgetfulness and of loss.
James Smythe has tackled a similar theme before in The Machine but in I Still Dream he develops it further, placing the AI in a world that feels very real and giving it an intriguing and complex role in its creator’s life as well as in society in general. The novel presents an insightful exploration of the role of the internet and artificial intelligence in our life, not dismissing it as an evil to be banished, but with a potential for good. But, above all, the novel depicts the story of a life, from youth to old age, with all of the heartache and happiness that can be found in between, all of the things that deserve never to be forgotten.
And just look at that cover!
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