Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
The sun is dying. Five billion years earlier than scientists believed it should, it looks set to wipe out all life on the planet Earth. Emily is an artificial consciousness, a university experiment designed to help humans process trauma. When her creator discovers a way in which she can save humanity, he ends up dead, Emily’s servers stolen and her ability to interact with the world taken from her. She finds herself on the run with a chemistry student named Jason – on whom she has developed something of a crush during her five-year lifespan – and Mayra, a small-town sheriff, with time rapidly running out to save anyone. When she comes face to face with an earlier version of herself – less artificial consciousness and more old-fashioned artificial intelligence – Emily must discover, and leverage, what it is that makes us human in order to save us from our own flawed logic, and from almost certain extinction.
M.G. Wheaton’s debut novel immediately sets itself apart from other end-of-the-world novels by presenting the story from a unique point of view. Emily is our first-person narrator and, even though she exists as little more than a piece of code, we find ourselves looking through her eyes, and seeing the world from her often-limited point of view. Initially restricted to the university grounds, Emily has spent five years growing in a controlled environment, forced to be subject to the same laws of physics as the rest of us in order to make her feel as human as possible. This means a shower and attendant activities every morning, and a walk from her virtual room to the laboratory where she works with a small team of scientists. Despite the fact that none of these activities are strictly necessary, both Emily and her creator feel that they’ll help her appreciate the daily struggles of the human animal.
Emily is an incredible and memorable creation, a character who can get under the reader’s skin and stay there long after the end of the story. Unlike many fictional AI creations, Emily’s status as Artificial Consciousness gives her a personality with which we can engage, and a unique, natural voice, through which we follow the story. Give her a body, and she’s probably closer to Dick’s replicants than any other computer-based lifeform in science fiction. And therein lies her uniqueness: Emily has no physical form. She can interact with people who are wearing a special interface chip, so once her servers are taken from her, she exists in a kind of limbo, conscious only when one of her companions wears the chip in which her entire being is stored.
Despite the issues I found with the plot – the Jason/Emily sex scene being one of the most prominent – Emily Eternal is, overall, an excellent piece of speculative fiction. Wheaton examines the human condition through the eyes of someone – or something – that wishes nothing more than to be a real person. This empathy often makes Emily the most human character in any given scene and begs the question why she would strive to be like us, when we should perhaps be striving to be more like her. Despite the fast pace of the novel, and the impending death of the planet and everything on it, Wheaton takes time to examine this conundrum from a number of different angles.
Emily Eternal treads the thin line between science fiction and science fact; you’ll find nothing here, for the most part, that is beyond the realms of possibility. I have some qualms about the story’s resolution, but not enough to ruin the overall vibe or to stop me from recommending the book to everyone who likes science fiction. Part Ben H. Winters’ Henry Palace series, part Pinocchio, with a dash of Neal Stephenson’s excellent Seveneves, Emily Eternal presents us with a near-future vision that is entirely plausible, using technology that is a mere handful of iterations beyond what is available today.
Emily is smart and capable, though plagued by many of the worries and foibles that affect her human counterparts. She is an excellent choice for point of view during the telling of this apocalyptic tale, a character who is affected by the same impending doom as everyone else, while still being something of an outsider, allowing the author to present a somewhat unique vision of the end of the world.
Fast-paced and full of heart, Emily Eternal is a standout debut that feels like the work of a much more accomplished author. Perfect for fans of Michael Crichton or Neal Stephenson, it’s a thought-provoking and intelligent read that still manages to entertain and surprise. I have quibbles, but none of them are major, and none of them spoiled my enjoyment of the book. Author M.G. Wheaton and Emily herself deserve to be household names. We can only hope that there is plenty more to come. For now, Emily Eternal should be on your list of books to read sooner rather than later.