Each of the 12 stories has a central character, be it male or female, AI or human, who has both a back story and a perceived choice in the space and time and story they inhabit. It presents a dark vision of this “future,” yet, despite the stark circumstances and places the characters go and the loneliness we experience witnessing these characters’ lives, we are not left cold when finishing the collection of stories – or the individual story, for that matter. Instead, we are left pondering the deeper questions of our own existence. Some readers may find this questioning an “unfriendly” experience, and perhaps it is, but this inquiry is also a fundamental one that runs through this collection.
Odin is a god in Norse mythology, associated with knowledge, healing, and death (among other things), and in the first pages of the book, the author quotes the wiki on Odin:
To drink from the Well of Wisdom (also known as “Mimir’s Well” – author’s note), Odin had to sacrifice his eye — symbolizing his willingness to gain the knowledge of the past, present and future. As he drank, he saw all the sorrows and troubles that would fall upon men and the gods.
It is fitting, then, that the first story in the 12-story collection is titled “Mimir’s Well,” and the central character is charged with deactivating one of the first AI’s on Luna (aka the Moon) that “tech-liberals” have dubbed “the Guardian.” The Association, the organization with power, has deemed that only legal AIs should exist.
Those that had controlled, specialized functions and were stable, rational, and reliable. Anything else meant anarchy, fragmentation, and disaster.
The “de-activator” then ponders:
…What was it like? The AI freed from the programming that had guided its original behavior, free to reach for every pulse of info, every neuro-tech connection on the entire Net, able to grow and develop its own links and memory banks. An AI without a preordained function, free to discover and pursue its own objectives.
Are these musings of the de-activator relevant to humans? It is an interesting query as one considers: What is the line between human or not human? How fragile are we? How strong are we? (While reading these particular passages, I was reminded of the conflict in the HBO series Westworld where there is a questionable and feeble delineation between true and “artificial consciousness.”)
The story in “Mimir’s Well” continues and, in the process of deactivating the Guardian, the central character is drawn into its “consciousness,”
…linking in to the Guardian, entering its consciousness, going in
it suddenly went out.
Darkness. No. More than darkness. Complete absence of all sensory input. No audio, no visuals, no tactile sensations: nothing. Paralyzed, he dangled in this nothingness, unable to go any further and unable to exit. Trapped. Then a voice. ‘Loneliness.’
There was no breath, no warmth of a living presence, just a whisper inside his head.
‘You are alone without it, without me, without us.’
The conclusion of this story, like all the others, might leave readers unsatisfied, not because it is not a good story but because there really is no answer.
In “The Child,” we feel the pain of the mother as she listens to the cold, steel words of the doctor informing her that the nameless child was born with “unacceptable” traits for which “preventative upgrades” are strongly recommended. We sense the mother’s isolation from the child, as the unknown of who the child will become is undesirable and the solution is to normalize outliers with software. How the mother handles this challenge and what it reveals about her and her past moves the story forward.
The themes of nothingness, loneliness, memory, and possibility are also woven throughout the remaining 10 stories in the collection, leaving us with a slight sensory disturbance. Haskins’ style is straightforward, and she is adept at delivering the complexity of the worlds and characters she’s created without confusing the reader. These gritty, thought-provoking stories require such clarity. It is a quest for answers, and it is curiosity that charges our existence.