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‘Mother is no longer herself’: an AI house gone wonky and other science-fiction novels

New reads from Julianne Pachico, Daniel J Mooney, Alice McIlroy, Dara Kavanagh and Karel Čapek

Why bother with smartphones and smart fridges when you can live in a smart house? Julianne Pachico’s Jungle House (Orbit, £12.99), set in a remote, mountainous area of an unnamed Central American country, revolves around Lena, orphaned at a young age and reared into her teens by “Mother”, aka the jungle holiday home of the Morel family that comes fully equipped with artificial intelligence.

Unfortunately, “Mother is no longer herself”, which spells disaster with rebel troops massing in the jungle and autonomous space satellites developing “their own stupid little plan for the future of humanity”. There’s an element of Hal 9000 transplanted to terra firma in Pachico’s latest novel (and a touch of Marvin the Paranoid Android to Anton, the drone who sulks under the bed), but Mother is an idiosyncratic “character” as she does whatever she can to save Lena from impending peril in a smart novel that mines fearmongering about the dangers of AI for bleak satire.

The first truly cataclysmic storm of the climate change epoch struck Ireland in 2026. Two decades on, with the latest storm approaching, Malley and Broderick – agents of the Department of Environmental Justice – set out to deliver their lethal brand of justice to those who were responsible for climate catastrophe, unaware that their latest recruit, an unsophisticated “lowlander”, is by no means convinced of the righteousness of their cause. So begins Daniel J Mooney’s The 14th Storm (Legend Press, £9.99), a dystopian thriller that explores the necessity for justice and the possibility of redemption for those who were responsible for climate change – “a generation of lazy, entitled, selfish, narcissistic scum”. Mooney delivers a persuasive reimagining of an Ireland – now “an international pariah” – largely deprived of power, food and law and order in a novel reminiscent of Mad Max in its world building and body count.

Alice McIlroy’s The Glass Woman (Datura Books, £9.99) begins with Iris waking from an operation designed to alleviate her depression, but with no memory – despite the reassurances of her husband, Marcus – of giving her consent for a procedure that involves the installation of an “artificial intelligence neural network” in her brain. With the biocompatible Ariel burrowing deeper and deeper into her consciousness, Iris must try to figure out what’s real and what is simply the programming of the neuroscientists who control Ariel. The Glass Woman is very much a book of two halves: the brilliant first half raises fascinating questions about consciousness and its relation to objective and subjective reality, but the latter stages feel rushed as the story becomes a conventional race against time to discover the truth.


The hero of Dara Kavanagh’s Jabberwock (Dedalus Press, £12.99), the “Dubilin”-based newspaper columnist Ignatius Hackett, is “addicted to words”, so he’s the ideal man to investigate the “verbal outrages”, “lexical crimes” and “linguistic terrorism” being perpetrated on the English language in the run-up to the second World War by covert forces “bent on the disarticulation of the United Kingdom”. Dispatched to London to investigate by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Hackett finds himself embroiled in the kind of maelstrom that might easily have been hatched by Cervantes, Sterne or Flann O’Brien, all of whom (along with many other literary comic geniuses) are referenced here. Set in a parallel reality roughly a quark’s breadth away from our own, Jabberwock is a laugh-out-loud love letter to language itself, and arguably the greatest treasure trove of terrible literary puns ever published.

Edited by Jitka Čejková, Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. and the Vision of Artificial Life (MIT Press, £27) features a new translation (by Štěpán S. Šimek) of Čapek’s seminal play R.U.R., which first introduced the concept of robots – even if Čapek’s robots, as he took pains to point out, were not mechanical, but generated from biological chemistry. Čapek, as Čejková reminds us, was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature seven times, and with R.U.R. he created “a timeless work, in which we can find many topics that scientists deal with even today, whether the synthesis of artificial cells, tissues, and organs, issues of evolution and reproduction, or the ability to imitate the behaviour of human beings and show at least signs of intelligence or consciousness”.

Indeed, the bulk of the book is taken up by a series of essays that take Čapek’s prescient work (the play was first performed in 1921) as a jumping-off point to discuss a wide variety of developments that have accrued from what Čejková describes as “the technological Faustian bargain” made between humanity and all forms of artificial intelligence. Among the very many topics discussed are those of artificial panpsychism, sex robots, the Mars rover Curiosity, the biological uncertainty principle, the need for vulnerable machines, and our relationship with the humble Roomba. All told, it’s a must-read for anyone interested in ALife.

Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His current novel is The Lammisters (No Alibis Press)

Declan Burke

Declan Burke

Declan Burke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic