Travel Documents 53: First of Their Kind (Chronicles of Theren Book 1)

First of Their Kind (Chronicles of Theren Book 1)

C. D. Tavenor
Genre: near-future, synthetic intelligence, human evolution, noblebright

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The Dust Cover Copy

Synthetic Intelligence.

Thought impossible, but Dr. Wallace Theren has pushed the boundaries of computational science, creating an artificial mind capable of conscious thought. Naturally, his creation faces a harsh world bent on using it, exploiting it, or destroying it. If the first synthetic intelligence is to survive its early years, it’ll need friends, but more importantly, it’ll need a family.

And together, they’ll need to show their enemies they’re worth saving… or fearing.

What would you do as the first SI? The story is through their eyes.

 

The Deets

The Scene

Worldbuilding

I found this one of the more profound reads on my list recently. This narrative realistically and deftly explores how the world really would look through the eyes of the first Synthetic Intelligence, and through the narrative comments on what it means to be human, and what it means to be sentient. This author has a knack for extrapolating from current events and attitudes to weave events into a completely believable tomorrow. Dropping hints of the present into the future–the words ‘brought to you by Youtube News’ came up, and trending on social media is integral to public relations decisions. Both nice touches–this story explores the next battleground of selfhood: how we will handle it as a world when a new form of sentience is born. A non-human one.

In this world where privacy is treated as something rare and masked virtual soirées are held by those who can afford it, where small town America is left too far behind (hm, sound familiar), where Switzerland races into the future and some members of humanity rocket towards colonies on the moon, who deserves to be treated as a person and who gets to have what is played out in a whole new way. The story holds important mirrors up to current events. There will always be people who are frightened by what is different. And far too many people let fear fester into hatred. This is a world where pundits slander SI beings as little better than your roomba, and radicals are ready to kill over perceived threats to their personal worth as productive employees, people, and worthwhile members of society. As SI beings begin to step into their future, there are those who would like to make them history. Permanently.

The Crowd

Characterization

This is an intricate puzzle box of a story, seen through the eyes of someone new to operating it. When Test 42 first comes online, it has to go through many of the stages of childhood that a human would: forming their sense of self. Choosing their gender, something that some of us need to go through. Choosing how to present themselves. They also take on a name: the name of their father. Watching Theren take these steps in their lives is a lot like watching a younger relative come into their own, and I found it as touching as watching a younger friend awkwardly begin to step into their lives. Theren and their compatriots are written as wonderfully sympathetic characters without losing sight of the fact that some of them are, in truth, a new kind of creature with a new kind of thought process. Since Theren is the access character, we see the world through their eyes, and some views do come across as a touch naive. The idea that, if you explain everything and do everything perfectly it will behave a specific way, is a beguiling one, but it isn’t one that works when humanity is involved. Things that make most of us shrug and say ‘yeah, some people are assholes’ really obsess Theren and the younger SI in the story. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we shouldn’t accept it either.

I also really enjoyed the subtle normalizing of non-binary genders and the clear signs that humanity has gotten over its issues with sexual orientation–mostly–by this point. It made a pleasant addition to the characterization of several figures in the narrative. Of course, seen through the eyes of a creature with no sexual organs, this all gets a little more direct: people are people. That simple.

Writing Style

Written in a clear, precise style that was perfectly complemented by the audiobook reader who performed the copy I listened to, this story feels exactly like what an intelligence whose native speech isn’t made using vocal cords  and whose base OS isn’t based on a visually-fixated ape would sound like. It’s a touch stiff when you first encounter it, but give it time; it’s going to grow on you. There’s genuine, deep emotion here; just not the kind you’re used to.

The Moves

Plot

Surprisingly deft and subtle in the use of events and interpersonal interaction, Tavenor has proven that a story full of tension and emotional impact *can* be told involving AI, without involving a devolution to robots going crazy and starting a killing spree (which has always, as a plot device, mildly annoyed me). I adored the fact that, without pandering to the Terminator trope, Tavenor wrote a story filled with conflict over the existence and the sentient status of SI. Society debates where they fit and what they do in society, and so do the SI themselves. Theren and their friends find ways through their problems we readers may question, and they question the decisions too. But whether we’re made of meat or meta-materials, we all live and learn as best we can. That’s what makes this story feel real.  It makes for a wonderfully involved story of interpersonal and ethical questions.

Beyond these excellent story qualities, I have to say that as a reader, I appreciated the sight of a possible way into a brighter future so very much. We need that right now.

Overall Rating

This was an intellectual delight of a story, and an emotionally bolstering one as well. Definitely one to pick up.