VIRTUAL GIRL by Amy Thomson (Book Review)

I have read books, lots of books, about robots – all the Isaac Asimov robot stories for a start, including the final volumes of the great Foundation series – and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its screen adaptation, the virtually perfect film Bladerunner – but I have never come across a story of a robot that so moved me, or a robot – an android – a gynoid – I so wholly identified with.

This book was published in 1993. In the last twenty, thirty, years, the world of Artificial Intelligence has without doubt made advances that would have seemed unimaginable then, but that is not the point. The technological side of this story, like that of many of the best SF books (call them Speculative Fantasy rather than pure Science Fiction) is simply a prop on which the human story is based. And of course even the purists rarely, if ever, get their future science right.

I said “a human story” and it is a very human story, but it is also the story of a humanoid. For the question posed here is: when (not if) we can make computers, Artificial Intelligences, conscious and self-aware, will they be “people” in their own right? Will owning them be tantamount to slavery.

The story is set in the fairly near future, at a time when any form of A.I. has been proscribed, although, of course, at certain universities such as MIT research goes on regardless. But Arnold, the son a of a super-rich industrialist, exaggerates, and is sent down.

But let me be quite clear about this: Virtual Girl is not the story of a machine, it is the story of a girl who at one year old, has suddenly to become a young woman and take control of her own life, albeit life on the street. In many ways the ultimate outsider, for AI has been banned and she has been created illegally by an MIT drop-out, a loner who wants the perfect companion, she proves to be the most human person in the dystopian world of this book.

When the book opens, he is living like a bum. His father refuses to have him in the house unless he gives up his research and his dreams and agrees to take his natural place as his father’s heir and successor. In a rented garage, he builds his masterpiece: a robot called Maggie, programmed to be the perfect companion. And I do not mean sex partner. On the contrary, although she is a woman, perfect in every detail, she has not been programmed for sex. Does not understand it. Our Arnold is a bit of a prude.

The description of her first faltering steps when he downloads her into her body, and the incident of sensory overload the first time he takes her out in the street, have no equal in SF so far as I am aware. And it is the fact that she has to deal with the sensory overload herself, reprogram herself to deal with the problem, that starts her on the road to autonomy. Freedom.

I am not going to tell you what happens, just that it is one of those books that keeps getting better and better and better. By page 150, you are open-mouthed. By page 200, you know you have never read anything like this before.