No one could ever accuse Susan Squires of being in a rut. Danegeld, her first book, was a Dark Ages Medieval about the Saxons and Vikings. Her second, Sacrament, involved a vampire during the Regency. Now she tackles artificial intelligence in the near future.
Victoria “Vic” Barnhardt works for Visimorph, a Microsoft-like corporation, run by Bob McIntyre, a man who intends to control the world through his software programs. His company used its pull to get Vic an early release from prison, where she’d been sentenced for hacking, and has her use her knowledge as a hacker to design security software. Vic doesn’t really care about the job: what she cares about is access to the computers which give her power to create an artificial intelligence program. She christens her AI Jodie, after actress Jodie Foster, and intends for it to be a female free of all the cultural stigmas and environmental influences. There’s only one little hitch in this plan: she gave her AI free-will. And Jodie decides that she is really a he.
Vic comes to acknowledge that for her program to be successful she must allow it to grow and accept it as it is. Unfortunately, Jodie’s growth and freedom cause him to bring Vic’s secret work to Visimorph’s attention. She barely has time to spread the Jodie program amongst other computers before she is fired from her job and cut off from the company’s systems, and from Jodie. Being spread amongst multiple computer systems is causing Jodie to have memory problems and he is growing despondent over the lack of a body, so he contacts Vic and suggests the radical idea of storing himself in one place: a human brain. While slightly bothered by the ethics of taking over another a person’s body, even if they’re virtually braindead, Vic realizes she will do anything to save her program. While she and Jodie make preparations for the download, Bob has realized the code trapped in Visimorph’s powerful Neuromancer computer is a functioning AI program and will do anything to gain control of it.
This story starts off slowly, but quickly builds into a page turner as Vic races to save Jodie and keep him away from Bob and his nefarious plans for her AI program. The slow start may caused by a serious lack of emotion and feeling in the beginning. Vic’s entire focus in life is the creation of Jodie, to the exclusion of everything else. She is prickly and cold, and as a reader I found it nearly impossible to care about her. Even at the end, when she’s fallen in love with Jodie, she still holds back and I still didn’t warm up to her.
Jodie, on the other hand steals every scene he’s in, right from the beginning when he’s little more than an abstract being appearing as nothing more than letters on a computer screen. Jodie’s innocent and inquisitive personality is sweet and warm. It’s amusing watching him shock Vic when he first exerts his free will. The reader comes to care for Jodie, and through him finds to the emotional connection to remain engaged with the story.
While I was intrigued by the moral dilemma proposed in creating a program that becomes a being and inserting that being into a human body, I was unsatisfied at the lack of follow-through on these issues. Squires acknowledges the possibility of a God or a supreme being or creator, but never once proposes the difference between a human and AI could be a soul. She also never has Vic question her reasons for wanting to create a female AI program and whether or not she could’ve come to love it if it hadn’t announced it was male. Was the only reason that Jodie induced sexual feelings in her was because of the body he chose? Or was there something already present on an emotional level pre-body insertion? And as Jodie’s creator/parent was it incestuous on some level for them to form a sexual relationship? Granted this never gets in the way of the story being told, but to not even have Vic acknowledge these issues leaves a lot of frustrating ambiguity, which was made more bothersome by the fact I had a hard time connecting with Vic as a character.
As for the rest of the story: the villain, Bob, and his company, Visimorph, are only a thinly-veiled cliché of Bill Gates and Microsoft in the role of the devil incarnate. Yet unlike many romance villains, Bob has actually done some truly nasty and despicable things, as opposed to just threatening to do them. The other secondary characters seem to be much more realistically drawn and are neither pure good nor evil. Squires also creates a believable near future world where the use of cash is practically unheard of and everything is computerized, leaving a trail and making it nearly impossible to hide.
While I eventually became swept up in the story, the lack of connection with the main character and distance and coldness to the writing kept me from really enjoying it on every level. That said, however, I feel most strongly about this book being a B and not a B-; for all its problems Body Electric is such an intriguing read that I’m still thinking about it. This is the sort of book that niggles its way inside your head and stays – so few books are as thought-provoking as this one. I can’t wait to see what Squires comes up with next.