Quick book picks for April

With a whole load of books out this month, it was actually hard to pick out some recommendations. These are a mixed bunch aimed at a variety of audiences, but not limited to those audiences. Click on the title links to full reviews for more details.

  • I Still Dream by James Smythe – A novel about a girl who builds an AI to listen to her problems and how that AI becomes so much more, but also stays as her personal friend and confidant. Proof that books about tech can also be about memory, loss, and the minutiae of people’s lives.
  • The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla – A story of three generations of the same family, and how their different cultural experiences in Kenya, Keighley, and beyond and their differences of opinion and life shape how they interact.
  • Clean by Juno Dawson – Exciting whilst also hard-hitting, Clean is a young adult novel about addiction, but also about privilege, what makes people different, and how you can have sympathy for abrasive characters. Treats the subject matter seriously, but is also witty and clever.
  • Circe by Madeline Miller – Miller turns from the Iliad to the Odyssey in this rewriting of the story of Circe that weaves together a great deal of stories, showing the tension between gods and mortals from the perspective of an outcast.
  • The Chosen Ones by Scarlett Thomas – The next book in Thomas’ charming magical children’s series that imagines a world where electricity is no longer reliable and magic and books become crucial.
  • Macbeth by Jo Nesbo – The next book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series takes Macbeth and gives it a crime thriller treatment that strips that magic and retains the paranoid corruption. Undoubtably will be popular in libraries.

I Still Dream by James Smythe

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.