Title: Proof of Concept
Author: Gwyneth Jones
On a desperately overcrowded future Earth, crippled by climate change, the most unlikely hope is better than none. Governments turn to Big Science to provide them with the dreams that will keep the masses compliant. The Needle is one such dream, an installation where the most abstruse theoretical science is being tested: science that might make human travel to a habitable exoplanet distantly feasible.
When the Needle’s director offers her underground compound as a training base, Kir is thrilled to be invited to join the team, even though she knows it’s only because her brain is host to a quantum artificial intelligence called Altair.
Gwyneth Jones is possibly one of the most unconventional science fiction writers of recent years. Her books tend to have absolutely outrageous concepts and go in directions I am not entirely sure I always entirely understand. This story is unconventional in a different way. Whilst it is true the first chapter (numbered zero, for reasons I, again, do not quite fathom) throws us into an array of weird ideas it actually settles into a much more traditional sort of science fiction tale than I am used to from Jones.
We have a large-scale space project, an ecological disaster world, modified humans, and a strong focus on character work reminiscent of Becky Chambers’ A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet. Now by the standards of Jones’ other work (and the trends among the Tor Novellas) it would be fair to consider this to be an unusually usual solid piece of science fiction. However, Jones adds another layer to it and fills it full of fascinating philosophical concepts.
There is a supposed quote from Richard Feynman “Science needs philosophy like birds need ornithology.” Whether it is true or not, it represents a view of the inherent uselessness of philosophical ideals to the progress of science. Here Jones seems to seek to challenge this notion with a continual criticism of binary thinking. Take the ideas about computers for example. It is first of all pointed out how the Turing Test is commonly misunderstood; it has nothing to do with the presentation by the AI of its humanity, rather it is in the eye of the beholder whether or not they really see the AI as human. Then we have the criticism of the Darwinian-Descartes binary, that anything that is not human flesh is a dead AI. But we are presented with figures all along the spectrum, including our protagonist in Kir who is a human essentially linked into a supercomputer. In order to understand the novel, we are continuously forced to break down this kind of binary thinking and accept the universe as infinitely complex.
That is not to say we are not met with sharp comparisons. The most obvious is the way in which the characters inhabit the world. The Scavs in the ‘Dead Zones’ are continuously forced to eke out a harsh existence mixing the struggle to survive with lawlessness and threats of sexual violence. By contrast the Hivezens are forced to live in cramped overcrowded cities where every aspect of their lives is controlled and sex without permission in particular is forbidden. Then there are the One Percenters who have their orbital hotels and land preserves able to buy anything they want. But we soon learn even these harsh dichotomies are false. The Dead Zones are not dead and many animals thought to be extinct still manage to exist out there. The Hives are not controlled as the Mega-Corps would hope and many people still have children outside the permits. And whilst the One Percenters can buy many things, they cannot buy themselves out of the ecological collapse facing humanity.
But the centre of the story is still character driven. We, much like the people on Earth commonly do in the tale, get our entertainment from watching how people interact in this small cramped space on the Needle test and how the different groups have to work with each other in this environment, the nature of the test itself being unimportant. At the centre of this is Kir who makes for an excellent protagonist as she exists between all the different worlds and her loyalties are constantly conflicted as she tries uncover what is going on.
Throughout it unpicks a mystery slowly as to what is happening. You know something is happening that is beyond your reach but it is hard to know what it is until the end, which is thoroughly satisfying.
At its surface Proof of Concept is a traditional piece of hard science fiction with strong character work, confounded by philosophy and trying to tear down the basic binary thinking that can hold people back. A well worthwhile read.
Reviewer: Kris Vyas-Myall