I’m thrilled that today is my stop on the blog tour for Rejoice: A Knife to the Heart, the new sci-fi thriller from Steven Erikson. Thanks so much to Gollancz for giving me the opportunity to read this fascinating look at first contact early!
Book: Rejoice: A Knife to the Heart by Steven Erikson
Read before: No
Ownership: ARC sent by Gollancz for fair review.
An alien AI has been sent to the solar system as representative of three advanced species. Its mission is to save the Earth’s ecosystem – and the biggest threat to that is humanity. But we are also part of the system, so the AI must make a choice. Should it save mankind or wipe it out? Are we worth it? The AI is all-powerful, and might as well be a god. So it sets up some conditions. Violence is now impossible. Large-scale destruction of natural resources is impossible. Food and water will be provided for those who really, truly need them. You can’t even bully someone on the internet any more. The old way of doing things is gone. But a certain thin-skinned US president, among others, is still wedded to late-stage capitalism. Can we adapt? Can we prove ourselves worthy? And are we prepared to give up free will for a world without violence? And above it all, on a hidden spaceship, one woman watches. A science fiction writer, she was abducted from the middle of the street in broad daylight. She is the only person the AI will talk to. And she must make a decision.
Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might have noticed an absence of hard sci-fi. It’s not my usual genre, but something about this sounded really tempting. After reading Illuminae recently, I’ve been keen to read more about AIs that have a different sense of morality from humans, so the concept of an AI deciding to become the overall arbiter of morality was immediately intriguing! My favourite sections were those in which the AI explains its reasoning to Samantha, the woman it abducted from Earth to be its spokesperson. Though I do see how the control that the AI takes could be seen as problematic, I actually really liked its calm, methodical voice, and the concept of a sort of cosmic SuperNanny for Earth.
I also love the choice of Samantha, a science fiction writer, as the person with whom the AI will communicate! Rather than any policitians, or religious leaders, or any authority figures, Samantha is chosen, because as a sci-fi writer she has the most relevant ‘experience’, not to mention the imagination to cope with such a total change to the status quo. If sci fi writers imagine this sort of thing on the daily, then presumably they can be trusted not to freak out when beamed aboard a spaceship and philosophized at by a disembodied voice! It’s a really cool way to look at things, and one that I think sets this apart from other first contact stories. No ‘take me to your leader’ here. More, ‘your leaders are rubbish so I choose you’.
This is almost a philosophy book, rather than a novel, and I think that works to create some really interesting discussions. Rather than a single over-arching plot, following a few characters through the AI’s takeover, the book is a series of short vignettes, flashing back and forth across the world to peek at a wide variety of people and their immediate reactions to the events. Some readers may find this frustrating, and it does take a while to get used to, but this approach allows a real sense of the utter reach of the AI – we flit from the White House to the Congo to a bunch of conspiracy theorists in their basements to media moguls to regular Joes on the street and more. The AI’s takeover affects everyone, and Erikson’s done a great job of illustrating that. There are a few recurring characters, but the sheer scale of the novel is enormous.
This is not an easy read – it assumes a very high level of engagement from the reader, and a passing familiarity with philosophical arguments about free will. But for those who persevere, there’s a thoughtful, and indeed hopeful, story inside, which paints a picture of just how much better humanity could be, if it maybe had a little guidance.
Thanks again to Alex Layt at Gollancz for getting me involved in the blog tour, and sending me a copy of this fascinating read! Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour – Justine kicked us off on the 18th with a cool extract, and Judith will be posting on the 26th!