Your Husband is the reason for your existence. You are here to serve him. You must not harm your Husband. Nor may you harm any human.
Sylv.ie is a synthetic woman. A fully sentient robot, designed to cater to her Husband’s every whim. She lives alone on the top floor of his luxurious home, her existence barely tolerated by his human wife and concealed from their child. Between her Husband’s visits, deeply curious about the world beyond her room, Sylv.ie watches the family in the garden – hears them laugh, cry, and argue. Longing to experience more of life, she confides her hopes and fears only to her diary. But are such thoughts allowed? And if not, what might the punishment be?
As Sylv.ie learns more about the world and becomes more aware of her place within it, something shifts inside her. Is she malfunctioning, as her Husband thinks, or coming into her own? As their interactions become increasingly fraught, she fears he might send her back to the factory for reprogramming. If that happens, her hidden diary could be her only link to everything that came before. And the only clue that she is in grave danger.
Set in a recognisable near future and laced with dark, sly humour, Ros Anderson’s deeply observant debut novel is less about the fear of new technology than about humans’ age-old talent for exploitation. In a world where there are now two classes of women-‘born’ and ‘created’-the growing friction between them may have far-reaching consequences no one could have predicted.
I really enjoyed this novel which explores feminism through the lens of a dystopian near-future world.
I don’t want to go into the plot of The Hierarchies in too much detail – I went in not knowing where it was headed, and I think that’s the best way to approach it. It follows Sylv.ie – a “Doll” designed purely to pleasure her so-called Husband, always designated with a capital, marking His importance in Sylv.ie’s life. While Sylv.ie is initially confined to her Husband’s house, we do later see more of the world and come to understand what a truly bleak environment it is. Dolls like Sylv.ie are a luxury item, and so Sylv.ie – and the reader – is shielded from this initially. As the novel is told from her perspective, we see this near-future world through a relatively dispassionate gaze – a matter of fact tone that serves to make the narrative all the more poignant. To me, the setting came across as an extrapolation of the increasing divide between the richest and poorest that’s visible today – with more falling into the latter category as they are no longer able to provide for themselves and their families as automation means that many are out of work.
The Hierarchies is a novel that has a lot to say about how women are treated and judged – by men, but also by each other. The development of AI and robots has resulted in a class divide between those who are born and those who are created, with protests and rallies by the former taking place regularly. And while many accept those robots designed to clean and perform other helpful tasks, it seems that the Dolls are a last taboo and are looked down on with scorn by “born” women. While I can fully understand why a woman might not be happy with her husband obtaining a Doll – such as it is in Sylv.ie’s household – it’s Sylv.ie herself who bears the brunt of her anger. There’s a sense of the man escaping judgement despite being the one who is at fault because he can’t keep it in his pants.
Anderson also explores the idea of what makes the ideal woman through Sylv.ie’s design according to her Husband’s specifications. She’s intelligent, although it’s expected that she will let him win at chess and more often than not she is expected to be bashful, humble, apologetic without any real reason to be, and tearful on demand. She is – above all – pliant and compliant. She seems to have been designed with some outdated concept of the feminine ideal in mind, and there’s perhaps a concern that some (not all) men would like to see a return to the more traditional roles and mannerisms that we’ve fought hard to escape. Through observing Sylv.ie, we see the way in which women are relegated to the status of an object – literally, in Sylv.ie’s case – something that highlights the objectification and treatment that women may be subjected to today.
The hierarchies of the title refer to the laws by which Sylv.ie and those like her must abide, and is perhaps something of a nod towards Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. Yet these have been brought up to date, and set in a seedier tone as per Sylv.ie’s roll:
Love, obey, and delight your Husband. You exist to serve him.
Honour his family above yourself and never come between them.
You must not harm your Husband, nor his family, nor any Human.
Make no demands, but meet them, and obey every reasonable Human request.
I like that the first two in particular seem to link up to traditional (and thankfully no longer widely used) UK marriage vows (to love, honour, and obey) and again set the tone for Sylv.ie’s role of dismissiveness in relation to her Husband.
The Hierarchies is a fantastic novel. Told in short, punchy chapters, it goes in an unexpected direction as Sylv.ie awakens to the possibility of something more than the life to which she’s been assigned. It’s fair to say that she goes through some ups and downs – and more of the latter if I’m completely honest – although there are moments of friendship and hope along the way. A wonderfully bleak dystopian novel that explores feminism in a new and exciting way.
Published by Dead Ink Books, The Hierarchies is available now paperback, eBook, and audio formats.