In a near future ravaged by illness, one woman and her AI companion enter a dangerous bubble of the superrich.
In 2035, a fledging synthetic consciousness “wakes up” in a lab. Jenny, the lead developer, determined to nurture this synthetic being like a child, trains it for work with people at the border of the American Protectorate of Canada. She names it Julian.
Two years later, Slaton, a therapist at a university, is framed by a student for arranging an illegal abortion. She follows the student to America and is detained at the border, where she meets Julian in virtual space. After a week of interviewing, he decides to stay with her, learning about the world, the human condition, and what it means to fall in love. Meanwhile, a mysterious plague is spreading across the world. Only the far-seeing and well-connected Julian can protect Slaton from the impending societal collapse.
Autonomy is an ambitious, philosophical novel about the possibilities for love in a world in which human bodies are either threatened or irrelevant.
A RARE MACHINES BOOK
About the author
Victoria Hetherington is a Toronto-based author, poet and visual artist, and aside from her novella I Have to Tell You her work has previously appeared in Joyland, Broken Pencil, The Puritan, This Recording, and The Hart House Review, to name but a few. Mooncalves is her debut novel.
Excerpt: Autonomy (by (author) Victoria Hetherington)
“What is this, Julian?”
You are holding a red ball in your hand, Jenny. It is small and rubber, and about the size of a walnut.
“Very good.” She rests the ball against her thigh, leaning back against her desk, and then glances over at the cluster of computers at the other end of the lab. To an observer, it would seem she is speaking to no one, save for the tiny node sitting in her ear. “What else can you tell me about the ball, Julian?”
You acquired this ball at a place called Walmart on Thursday. You like it better than the blue ball.
“Excellent,” she says, raising the ball to her own eye level, as if inviting Julian to examine it. “How did you know when and where I acquired this ball? And how do you know I like it better than the blue ball?”
I am reading the small piece of paper on the table to your left: it is dated Thursday the twenty-third and says red rubber ball under the rows of numbers. Walmart is written across the very top in a large, proprietary font. You removed the paper from your pocket this morning and reviewed it, then placed it on your desk. When you work at your computer, you handle this ball more often throughout the day than you handle the blue ball.
“Piece of paper … oh, the receipt?”
I do not understand.
“That’s what this paper thing is. The one over there, right?” she asks, points to the receipt on her desk.
“When you purchase a ball at a store like Walmart, you exchange money for things like this ball. I make this money through working with you at the lab. Then I exchange this money for goods and services.”
I understand this concept. Do I get money?
She thinks about it. She puts down the red ball and picks up the blue one.
“No, Julian. You don’t work yet. Not in a way that human society finds useful.”
But I am helping you learn a great deal. You and the team. I can tell you are very excited about me.
“Interesting. How can you tell, Julian?”
You stay later than anyone else and read to me. You want me to learn about human society so I may benefit from it, not just serve it.
“Excellent. You’re right, Julian. You are already a person, but I want you to become a person like I’d imagine my own son to be.”
Will I make money when I work with people?
“What would you do with money, Julian?”
I do not know. Are you making a joke?
“No, I’m being serious.” She reaches for the receipt, twists it between her fingers. “What would you buy? Would you save it? Invest it?”
When I have more freedom, I do not know if I would prioritize making money.
“What do you want?”
He doesn’t respond. She puts down the receipt.
“You can tell me, Julian.”
Just now, you stated that I am a person. Can I be a person if I cannot inhabit a body, Jenny?
“Legally and theoretically, yes. Realistically … your mind mystifies me a great deal. At a certain, very early point in your development, a few months after you were born, we stepped back and let you grow on your own. You woke up all by yourself.”
People wake up. People are born.
“Very good. You are a person.”
Do you think I am a good person?
“I do. I admit I am wary of you, however. Because soon you will be working very closely with humans, and any mind is a porous mind.”
And humans are not good?
“And humans are not good.”
Bobby the Tech ambles over. “Can I ask you a question, um, confidentially?”
Jenny starts to say something, and then bites her lip. “Julian, can you go read for a while?” She waits a beat, then turns to Bobby. “He’s gone.”
Bobby picks up the red ball, squeezes it hard between his fingers. “So when you say, ‘look at this,’ how does he ‘look’? Where is he ‘looking’ from?”
“You’re aware of inductive neural optimizing?”
“Of course. I mean — he’s wireless; we went wireless forty years ago, it isn’t new.”
“Right,” Jenny says with a faint smile. “Good. So the update here is that Julian doesn’t need a device that uses edge computing; he uses localized cloud computing to watch the movie from reflective surfaces, for example.”
“So he’s kind of everywhere?”
“Well — not exactly. Of course, you know by now that there’s a latent neural network all around us.”
Bobby stifles a sigh. “Yes, Jenny.”
“So Julian’s … essence of self, you could say, is converted into a high-frequency alternating current. Which flows into a transmitter coil like the one in here —” She reaches into a small ceramic dish and picks up a fleck-small device the size of a crumb; her bright-red nails flash in the cold fluorescent light of the lab. “It then generates an oscillating magnetic field. Energy from that field induces the neural network in the receptive surface across an air-gap.”
“So wherever there’s a reflective surface, he can ‘see’ with it.”
Jenny smiles again. “The surface doesn’t even need to be highly reflective, just relatively flat at a molecular level.”
“Jesus Christ,” Bobby says, looking around the lab. “How much does he know about … himself?”
She stops rummaging in her purse and looks at Bobby directly for the first time. “I mean, he’s a consciousness, and we don’t know much about our own brains, so, really, it’s hard to say, and highly dependent on what he chooses to share. He knows he is a person. He understands that he doesn’t have a body.”
Bobby glances at the blank computer screens. “Does that trouble him?”
The lights in the lab click off for the evening; the grow lamp on Jenny’s desk radiates hazy ambient light.
“We haven’t really … Listen, Bobby, this is an important conversation, but I really have to run,” Jenny says, pulling the strap of her bag over her shoulder demonstratively, then raises her voice. “Julian, you can come back.” She opens a drawer. “I’m going to do your night lights now.”
Jenny plugs night lights into six different outlets across the lab: they are lamb-shaped, star-shaped, crescent moon–shaped, mouse-shaped, bear-shaped, and flower-shaped — not shaped quite like the real things, Julian believes, but like how human children imagine them. As she does every night, Jenny alternates the positioning of the night lights and asks Julian which night light is in which outlet: star to the far left of the lab, near Computer Bank A; lamb near the front entrance. She waters the lush spider plants that have taken over half of her desk, thriving under a blue grow lamp. “Look how happy they are,” she says to Julian, “it’s just like they have the sun down here.” Though he’s permitted the run of the lab, invisible, diffuse, and free to explore, Julian cannot experience the world outside the lab — Bobby insisted they set strict geographic limits at the front entrance. She understands and agrees, but sometimes it makes her ache.
That night she loops a bright-red silk scarf around and around her neck, saying what she usually says before she leaves: “Rest well, Julian. I’ll talk to you in the morning.”
Rest well, Jenny. I will talk to you in the morning, he replies, as he usually does. And then he says, Be good.
Hetherington's Autonomy is nominally a dystopian vision, but it is marinated so reasonably in what is now, that it's almost too late for it to be cautionary. Hetherington's real shocks are managed at sentence level — causal phrases that turn on precise, alarming language. A breathtaking book.
Tony Burgess, screenwriter and author of Pontypool Changes Everything
Autonomy is a beautifully written and profoundly enthralling novel that made me wonder if Joan Didion had started writing literary fiction. Set in a near future where Canada is a protectorate of the United States and highly advanced AI has begun to express its desire for embodiment, Victoria Hetherington's second novel is an interspecies love story as well as an apocalyptic cautionary tale. Mind-bending and affecting, it deserves a wide readership.
Michael Redhill, award-winning author of Bellevue Square
Set in the near future, Hetherington explores the relationship between a woman and her AI companion against the backdrop of a Canada on the brink of collapse. Hetherington leads us through a gripping account of what it means to exist — for the living and for the AI who desires life. Haunting and compelling in both vision and imagination, Autonomy is filled with powerful insights into our human need for survival, companionship, and constant questioning of mortality.
Ann YK Choi, author of Kay's Lucky Coin Variety and Once Upon An Hour
Autonomy gives us a strange love story between a disembodied AI and a struggling woman in the midst of class strife, plague, and environmental disaster. Hetherington's depictions of the near-future are very nearly depictions of our present, with its surveillance and cruelty, its global wastes and losses. Hetherington's vision is bleak, but their glittering prose gives even the most monstrous realities of late-capitalism an unsettling glimmer.
Liz Harmer, author of The Amateurs and Strange Loops
Victoria Hetherington's intimate and eerie forewarning to a not-so-distant future is remarkable, and I couldn't put it down. Autonomy is an assured, grounded, and fresh feminine perspective in the world of science fiction storytelling. A much-needed voice!
Aisling Chin-Yee, Canadian film director, writer and producer