Fiction

A fantastical, philosophical novel that looks at man vs machines in a new light

N Chandrasekhar Ramanujan | Updated on October 18, 2021

About the Book: Machinehood - S B Divya; Gallery/ Saga Press; 416 pages

S B Divya’s science fiction thriller Machinehood with a bodyguard assignment gone wrong plot is a layered, thought-provoking debut

Machinehood is S B Divya’s first novel. She is an electrical engineer based in the US. Prior to this she has published the short story collection “Contingency Plans for The Apocalypse” in 2019, containing the excellent novella Runtime which was a finalist for the prestigious Nebula Award in 2016. Her stories mainly fall under the realm of “hard” science fiction which are firmly grounded in scientific concepts and theories.

Machinehood in a lot of ways is a more fantastical and philosophical compared to her previous work. This, as well as its structure that mimics that of a thriller, makes the book much more accessible to a wider audience.

But before I get into analysing that I want to talk about a concept called Kayfabe in professional wrestling. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as “staged performances and the act of maintaining the illusion outside the ring.”

If you were like me and you grew up in close proximity to a working TV in those gloriously unregulated days of Indian late night cable TV in the late 90s and early 2000s, you would be familiar with WWE, Wrestlemania etc. All of these matches were completely fictional. The “wrestlers” with fancy stage names like “The Rock” and “The Undertaker” were not actually athletes but were more akin to actors. They had fictional backstories, grudges, feuds, gimmicks etc. The wrestlers would also maintain this "reality" within the direct or indirect presence of the general public and maintain their stage personas outside the ring, etc. There was a collective suspension of disbelief or shared alternate reality where all of this ludicrous nonsense was shown as genuine and not staged.

But wait a second, I can hear you thinking. This is a review of a science fiction thriller! Why are you talking about brightly dressed men pretending to punch each other? That’s because Kayfabe as a concept can apply to the online personas we have of ourselves, and the image we portray of ourselves to the world.

While writing this review, I got a chance to listen to the author in an interview and she said something that really stuck with me – that because of social media, “life itself becomes performative” – people are acutely conscious about how they are living their lives and presenting themselves at every second. Well, I want you to think about something - how many times have you put a picture of a new dress on Instagram? Or tweeted a hot take about the latest book everyone is talking about? You probably did this because you think it will get a lot of likes from people and they will think you are fashionable and/or intelligent. This is also a form of digital Kayfabe.

But Kayfabe can also be used as a conceptual lens to look at the story SB Divya writes in Machinehood – to understand the core mechanics that drive the setting of the story as well as the characters themselves, and the interaction with the antagonists.

The world of Machinehood is one where nobody has any privacy. Swarms of microscopic robots record what everyone is doing all the time and upload it on the internet for anyone to see. It is in a very literal sense the concept of the panopticon that philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault talk about.

The panopticon is a very complex concept, but I will try and dumb it down here. Imagine you are at your cubicle. It is a slow afternoon so you are slouching in your chair and scrolling through memes on twitter. Your boss walks in the room and then you suddenly sit up straight, minimise the browser tab and pretend that you are working on a spreadsheet instead. Now imagine that your boss is always in the room and even if he or she is not watching you right now, there’s no way for you to know that, so you act like you are being watched all the time and regulate your behaviour accordingly. The characters in Machinehood know that other people are probably watching them, and this affects their decision making and the courses of action they take throughout the story.

It also alters the flow of information. Secrets are very hard to keep, and anything that one character discovers is shared almost immediately with others.

But back to Kayfabe! The protagonist, Welga Ramirez is a celebrity. As a “shield” or a bodyguard for a “funder” or an industrialist who produces and researches “pills” that increase human efficiency and brain power to let them function and compete with the bots who have increasingly dominated the economic landscape, she and her team have to protect the funder from protesters and attacks from activists who are opposed to these augmented technologies. Unfortunately, in the world of Machinehood, if you are an activist, your cause gets tips and money for the quality of the protest or how attention grabbing it is – then as a bodyguard you get paid for also acting dramatically, playing out a plot, jumping into the path of a bullet in a filmy way etc.

Of course it’s all fun and games until a new terrorist group called the Machinehood actually kills Welga’s client and breaks the rules of the carefully constructed choreography that has happened so far. Welga finds herself without a job, and looking for revenge.

Superficially, the book might appear similar to other bodyguard-assignment-gone-wrong thrillers like “Man on Fire” or “Closer” – and it follows a lot of those same procedural beats – the protagonist recovering from their injuries, begins to investigate the antagonist, puts together clues and acts to resolve the story.

But to me the most interesting thing is how she frames the long-term consequences of living in a society where you’re always on camera, all the time. Usually in books like 1984 it’s framed that the hero wants privacy, he doesn’t like being snooped on all the time, but Welga doesn’t want privacy – what she sees value in is being connected to family and friends and being able to check in on them all the time.

In the same interview, SB Divya talks about her own experience being an immigrant as a child in the US and being unable to keep in touch with her family and friends back in India. She noticed that a lot of American science fiction reflected an individualist culture where protagonists didn’t have many family ties - their backgrounds etc don’t make an appearance. According to her, this makes no sense. People’s relationships with family members influence how they “move through their lives and the decisions and they make” and she tries to fix this by including Welga’s adult siblings, her in laws, her parents as important side characters.

For example, Welga’s sister in law Nithya, who adds an Indian connection by being based in Chennai, acts both as a Watson-type character (a contrast of normalcy as opposed to Welga’s action-packed celebrity life) as well as a source of assistance and research.

Characters aside, it’s the setting where the story takes place - of a society that is so dependent on attention – that drives the central red herring of the plot. The Machinehood terrorists claim to be sentient Artifical Intelligences (AI) who want other robots and AIs to be treated on par with humanity and release a manifesto demanding equal rights for them.

But at the core it is a bait and switch. In fact, they are not AI at all, but technologically augmented humans pretending to be AI who are very good at being able to create a lot of social media buzz and fear about themselves. And that’s where the fundamental brilliance of the book lies. The villain we expected is not the villain we actually encounter. And these villains have their own backstories and motivations that drive them, that we understand through letters, diary entries, etc., that the protagonist unearths during the course of the novel – to an extent that at the climactic moment of the book, when Welga finally confronts them, we are fully invested in what happens next.

 

Malcolm Gladwell a few years back analysed a lot of thrillers to come up with a typology that I have visualised here. As per his argument, most thrillers fall into four types, all of which seek to either establish, restore, preserve or incrementally improve a status quo of how society organises itself. Machinehood falls outside of these four types, as towards the end, our protagonist grows to empathise more and more with the villains, and comes close to executing a face-heel turn (another term from pro-wrestling plots) and join them. Her dawning recognition that the current status quo of human society is untenable – and that the villains might actually be right that a radical transformation is needed is in conflict with her own sense of justice and morality which are implacably opposed to their violent methods. How she reconciles these two opposing thoughts is for me personally one of the best parts of the book.

(N Chandrasekhar Ramanujan is a product designer and researcher working in the tech sector. He is also a budding author, with a short story recently published in January 2019, as well as entries in various competitions. He lives in Pondicherry. )

 

About the Book:

Machinehood - S B Divya; Gallery/ Saga Press; 416 pages

 

 

Check out the book on Amazon

Published on October 18, 2021

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