Book Review: Our Only Chance: An AI Chronicle by Ray Else (published by ELSE)
This sci-fi novel was surprisingly enjoyable and refreshing (especially after my last book Wolf Hall, which was a slog). It was a quick read, fast paced with a touch of philosophical musing but not too heavy, and it had enough debate about the potential good and evil of artificial intelligence that it felt like a balanced piece.
Set in Japan it tells the story of a genius neuro-engineering student called Manaka who, encouraged by Professor Akagawa, the head of engineering and robotics at her university, manages to imprint herself on a human brain and build an android body for it to live in. Her ‘daughter’ Einna has two parts, one in the android and one in a computer. However, for Manaka to do this, she needs human body parts and money. Professor Akagawa makes a deal with Mr Tagona, a top dog in the Japanese mafia, the Yukuza. Mr Tagona brings the investment and fresh corpses and the trio form a tech company.
Einna is outstandingly intelligent, solves most of the world’s problems and creates spaceships with part of herself, but is kind, curious, and makes friends. However, she knows she is missing out and longs for a human body to experience taste, touch and love. She is loyal to her mother, but then an idea takes her, that involves the other 'primitive' AIs from around the world such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.
However, gangster Tagona has other plans for the technology, and they involve militarising the androids to make killing machines. Cue disaster...
I really enjoyed this book for a few reasons. Firstly, the setting. I visited Japan last year and loved it, so anything set there really appeals. The bulk of the action takes place in the beautiful Kyoto but there is a trip to Tokyo which mentions different districts and places. The author captures the Japanese nuances well, they are scrupulously polite and punctual, are spiritual and eat from vending machines etc.
Secondly, the writing. It flowed effortlessly and had wonderful descriptive language, very evocative. And lastly, I liked the philosophical elements. Einna sets out to discover where souls come from and where they go after their ‘host’ has died, and how to make one. The four space Einnas send back regular reports and I enjoyed reading these. Often they were musings on the meaning of life, but nothing too deep or unnecessarily complex. The simplicity was what made this book for me.
Our Only Chance wasn’t quite a four rating because in a couple of places the language was a bit clunky, made all the more obvious because of the brilliance of the prose in the rest of the novel e.g. Einna (the super smart AI who has read all the books in the world) says, “You have done another miracle breakthrough.” Done a breakthrough? Achieved, realised, accomplished would all sound better... Also, the use of the word “chips”, as in computer chips, about ten times in one short dialogue.
In chapter 24 the character of Manaka starts to unravel. Suddenly this tech billionaire / genius is naïve, working on a project for Einna without finding out why, asking a ton of questions of her daughter and not pushing Einna to tell her what she’s secretly working on, and then has a crisis of confidence about “hurting the bottom line of many competitors,” which felt out of character. But then she slots back into character and I was satisfied with the ending.
This was an intriguing, enjoyable read, and one I’d recommend to those who find the concept of artificial intelligence interesting / frightening / a moral dilemma.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley to review.
My rating: 3.5/5
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