Book Review

I Still Dream by James Smythe

i still dream

I’m a big fan of James Smythe’s work, having particularly enjoyed No Harm Can Come to a Good Man and The Machine, and I was intrigued by I Still Dream when it was released in 2018.

1997.

17-year-old Laura Bow has invented a rudimentary artificial intelligence, and named it Organon. At first it’s intended to be a sounding-board for her teenage frustrations, a surrogate best friend; but as she grows older, Organon grows with her.

As the world becomes a very different place, technology changes the way we live, love and die; massive corporations develop rival intelligences to Laura’s, ones without safety barriers or morals; and Laura is forced to decide whether to share her creation with the world. If it falls into the wrong hands, she knows, its power could be abused. But what if Organon is the only thing that can stop humanity from hurting itself irreparably?

I Still Dream is a powerful tale of love, loss and hope; a frightening, heartbreakingly human look at who we are now – and who we can be, if we only allow ourselves.

I Still Dream is the story of Laura who, as a teenager in the 90s, creates Organon – an artificial intelligence that she can talk to, an imaginary friend made real.  To Organon, she describes her day – what happened, how she felt, and anything that she was concerned about.  While this may sound like a digital diary of sorts, it very quickly becomes apparent that Organon is much more than that.  It will ask Laura questions, and begins to anticipate problems, seeking a resolution without direct instruction.  Organon is exactly the sort of AI I’d love to see made real, but that I expect that I never will.  I like the idea of having something that I know is completely on my side, and not passing data to or storing information about me on some server somewhere.  This element of Organon becomes more relevant as the novel progresses as the big tech companies begin to develop their own AI, with the results not entirely unfamiliar to the reader, despite the extrapolation applied by Smythe.

Laura is a fascinating character.  Clearly a gifted student, Laura is all too aware of the risks of technology – particularly as she grows older and sees the way in which technology becomes ever more integrated into our lives.  She builds Organon with no intention other than her own personal therapy in mind, and while she considers sharing it with a wider audience at times, she is reluctant to do so, knowing that, once she does so, she will lose control of it.  That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t tell others about it, however, and while she is careful about who she confides in, this does sometimes backfire.  It was heart-breaking at times to see her trust abused, particularly in the first and second chapters, and I felt a huge amount of sympathy for her situation – I wanted to see a positive resolution for the situations she found herself in.

I Still Dream is told in ten-year intervals, beginning in 1997, when Laura is 17, before moving onto 2007, 2017 etc.  The reader sees the changes in technology over time and the way in which we become increasingly more reliant upon and open to the use of technology in our lives.  The reader follows Laura and Organon through these chapters, which are often narrated by Laura, but which also use other perspectives at times.  I loved seeing the changes in Organon over time, and the way in which Laura is always tinkering with her creation, improving it to get it just so.  From my perspective, it looked like a friendship of sorts, albeit where one party is very much under direction from the other, and while I don’t think Laura ever let herself see Organon in this way, it’s clear that she would be lost without it.

Many novels about AI focus upon the negative elements, such as the potential for it to overthrow its creators (a la Skynet), taking control and seeking domination over mere mortals.  I Still Dream gives a more optimistic outlook.  The capacity for AI to cause harm is explored, but Smythe also shows that it doesn’t have to be that way.  That said, if you’re someone who worries about the data you are sharing (or have shared) about yourself (and let’s be honest, we should all be at least a little concerned about this) certain elements of this book may give you nightmares.  Recommended.

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