Cloudbusting and what the Cloud might do to humanity: I Still Dream by James Smythe
I Still Dream is an immersive and thoughtful novel about humanity, artificial intelligence, and memory that moves from a basic AI created in 1997 to a future where humanity needs fixing from the technology it has inflicted on itself. As a teenager, Laura Bow creates Organon, an artificial intelligence who will listen to her thoughts and ask her questions about how she is. She uses Organon to help her deal with the disappearance of her techie father and her undiagnosed depression. She continues to work on Organon and Organon continues to learn. At the same time, tech giants work on their own AIs, but these ones aren’t taught the same way as Organon and are without the morals that Laura has built into her creation. When things go catastrophically wrong, Organon might be the only hope to fix the world, but that means Laura would have to share her technological best friend with everyone.
The narrative moves across the decades to follow Laura, her life, her loved ones, and the ways in which artificial intelligence could help or hinder these things. Much of the focus is on thinking, brains, and intelligence: not only Organon and the other AIs, but also brain chemistry, memory, dementia, and how morality gets tied up with thinking. The deeply personal aspect of Organon and of Laura’s story—the novel follows her rather than following tech advances or events on a wider scale—is what makes the novel particularly compelling. Because of this and despite the technological focus, I Still Dream often does not feel like sci-fi. There is never a need to understand computers or AI to appreciate or enjoy the novel; indeed, its most long-running reference (and where the title is from) is Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’.
This is a gripping novel that uses technology to explore questions of loss, life, and privacy, creating for the most part a future that seems recognisably something that could come after our present day. It also is full of hope—it may feel similar to a number of Black Mirror episodes, but its message feels more in-keeping with the more hopeful ones like ‘San Junipero’—and the idea that despite the immorality and huge problems with much of technology, there is also a lot of positive and useful things that can come from it, as long as humans are programming it with the right attention and intentions.
Anyone with a worry about what Alexa might do next might enjoy this novel, but also those who enjoy books considering near-future implications of the contemporary world, using settings that feel recognisable rather than far-off. This is not a dark, cynical look at humanity and technology, but rather a book that opens up possibility, something we perhaps need in today’s world.