First of Their Kind seeks to explore the emergence of synthetic intelligence from the perspective of the emergent intelligence itself. I’ve not read any book which takes such an angle, so the premise piqued my interest from the start. I’ll break this review up into spoiler and non-spoiler sections. That way, if you want to read my opinions about specific things and berate me for them, you have the freedom to do so.
Set in the late twenty-first century, First of Their Kind follows the “birth” and life of a synthetic intelligence created by Dr. Wallace Theren. The novel’s slow start makes sense given the subject matter, as we experience with Test Forty-Three what it’s like to grow from awareness to interaction to sentience. In the future, it might make better sense to break up some of the scenes into their own chapters. The entire novel feels like it’s missing a few chapter breaks, if for no other reason than to give the reader a breather to take everything in.
The singular use of “they.” At first, reading a sentence using they in this way can be jarring. It feels… wrong for some reason. However, once you get past that, it feels natural. Most of the time, the singular they works well. I was only confused occasionally when multiple people had entered a conversation. Then, parsing whether they was plural or singular pulled me out of the moment. Those times were few and far between, however, and in general I liked it. The choice made a lot of sense for Theren, as they wished to make a statement about their own nature with the change of pronoun. As you read the review, you’ll notice that I used the singular “they” in keeping with Theren’s wishes.
Synthetic Intelligence has never quite looked the way it does in Mr. Travenor’s novel, and I am grateful. No psycho murderbots or strange contrivances. Just a new lifeform taking those first furtive steps into existence. First of Their Kind is a capable exploration of what it might be like inside the mind of a synthetic entity, even if it stumbles at times.
Theren is more real than most of the humans in the book, for better or worse, and has real motivations that don’t revolve around killing or enslaving all the humans. Imagine that. When I first encountered Theren, I immediately thought of Data from Star Trek the Next Generation. As an aside, you aren’t really a sci fi nerd unless you’ve watched at least a few of those episodes. Theren breaks from Data’s mold as the novel progresses however, carving out their own niche and refusing to become more human on purpose. The novel works as an interesting thought experiment about the nature of emergent properties from non-organic substances.
Time and thought went into the world building. From the rules governing Theren’s existence to a vision of the world in the future, the attention to detail is obvious. I don’t share Mr. Tavenor’s beliefs about the nature of our time, and so I don’t think the future he casts is particularly realistic. However, he clearly did his best to think his own view through well enough to look ahead and develop the implications.
The climax is good, but for different reasons than you might expect. I’ll not discuss that in detail here. Suffice to say, Mr. Tavenor shifted my perception of this book in the last twenty odd pages. If you want to read more, scroll down to the spoilers section.
The writing became clunky at times, especially while it delivered exposition. Large sections of introspection slowed the pace down more than I would like, and at times the side characters felt too flat or too much like characters rather than people. I would have preferred a smoother delivery system for the world building.
Monologues. Sometimes the characters talk too much, especially when the philosophy comes out. It makes sense for synthetic characters to discuss the mechanics of emotion, but too much of that can bog things down a bit.
The forces of antagonism don’t feel personal, even though Theren’s life could be at stake.
Spoiler Free Conclusion
If you’re a science fiction person, pick this book up. It’s got soul, it’s earnest and grows on you with time. The world building is good, the characters are interesting and the thought provoking conversations can become engrossing. At times the delivery is a little clunky, but the content is good enough to make the read worth it.
I like Jill. The second successful synthetic intelligence began her life as Test Forty-Four, but soon developed her own consciousness as Theren did. A father-daughter dynamic never emerged between them, despite Theren’s hand in her creation. Jill develops more quickly than Theren, likely due to their assistance. Her distinctiveness is highlighted when compared with Theren, as she wishes to be more human than her senior companion. Her own balance of wonder and cynicism is accentuated by her unique ability to create multiple perspectives simultaneously; something Theren never thought to try.
This ability lends itself well to writing and a great many other things. After the chase scene, the two SIs develop the ability to perform multiple functions at the same time with equal skill and attention. Many humans would commit crimes to possess such a power, and Jill does it with ease. Jill’s novel does well, but she spends much of her time tracking the anti-synth leader Michael through Virtual.
Jill develops a strange fascination with humans that differs from Theren’s. She wishes to be one of them, to be like them after a fashion; to be loved by them even. This desire pushes her to endanger the lives of her creators near the end of the novel. This plays well into the unspoken question that rears its head at the end: What happens when the needs of a synthetic clash with the needs of a human? When people speak of their fear over synthetic/alien life forms, that question is at the root of their fear.
Theren works because they’re simultaneously powerful and vulnerable, intelligent and foolish. All the power over a digital world is realized in Test Forty-Three, as the Virtual world that lays over the physical world of the future is fully malleable in their hands. Virtual stores and environments melt at their command; there is no software that Theren could not master. At the same time, in the physical world, Theren is not a murder bot. In fact, Theren’s Synthetic Neural Framework must remain intact for them to survive. This counterbalance of vulnerability and power plays an important role in the novel, and not only for the plot. Theren has real limitations associated with their nature and they must work to overcome them while relying on their human creators. The juxtaposition created as a result simultaneously emphasizes the relationship between Theren’s human and synthetic natures.
Theren’s intelligence is on display often. They routinely follow patterns and behaviors back to the source with ease. They deduce facts while playing chess and holding a press conference all at once. However, that considerable intelligence is subverted regularly by their naivety. Firstly, Theren incorrectly believes that reason will win over irrational individuals. Secondly, they incorrectly believe that creating more SIs will improve their relationship with their detractors. Theren illustrates the difference between intelligence and wisdom.
While good natured, Theren has flaws beyond a lack of wisdom. They struggle with self-indulgence through much of the novel as they grow into maturity, learning what it means to exit. This classic flaw of the visionary finds other forms of expression in Theren’s life especially in the way they treat others. For example, Theren celebrates an important moment in Jill’s life not for her sake, but for the sake of their quest to legitimize SIs to humanity.
All in all, Theren is delightful and frustrating, brilliant and tedious. They are alive and real.
What didn’t work
Synthetic Intelligence is good for society…
I lost count how often someone in the novel mentioned what a boon synthetic intelligence is to the world. Everyone and their mom, with a few notable exceptions, thinks Theren is the best thing since sliced bread, even the Texan who thought the world isn’t ready for them. However, if you read this book, can you name one important thing Theren does for humankind? And no, existing doesn’t count. Theren’s major accomplishment is creating another version of themself, but
The book runs laps around the world asserting the value of synthetic intelligence, but never actually shows its value beyond emotional attachment. Theren doesn’t win anyone over with their behavior, and neither does Jill. No one acquainted with the project seems to express any misgivings whatsoever. For a little while, I thought Simon, the project’s chief benefactor, kept his distance over his misgivings. When his true motivation was revealed, I was a little disappointed. Simon could have been an interesting voice of friendly dissent; instead he is a sympathetic extra.
Why is every critic a bigot or a moron?
This leads me to my other problem: Theren has no credible detractors. Plenty of people object to Theren’s existence, but they’re depicted in masses of incoherent blathering more often than anything else. The few individuals who object to Theren do so on what I see as bigoted grounds. They prattle on and on about souls and how Theren is a threat to humanity, without ever touching on the practical and legitimate reasons to worry about synthetic intelligence.
It is Jill, Theren’s sister SI, who ultimately puts her finger on the question that drives the fear of her kind: What happens when a robot’s needs come into conflict with a human’s needs? Mr. Tavenor’s novel demonstrates why we shouldn’t give Theren the benefit of the doubt while its many characters shout that we should. See my conclusion for why this could actually be a strength of the novel depending on the interpretation and Mr. Tavenor’s intentions.
I was never impressed by the villains in this novel. They never seemed dangerous to me, which makes the end of the book a bit jarring. Michael’s motivation is unclear; I still have no idea why he did what he did. The ending in particular is perplexing rather than intriguing. Because we aren’t privy to Michael’s life at all, we aren’t aware of any sort of inner conflict that could foreshadow his choice at the end. As it stands, it feels like a deus ex machina.
If my suspicions are correct, C.D. Tavenor has created something special. The entire novel is full of people who either hate Theren because they’re an “abomination” or love them because they exist. No one asks the only important question: Can we trust a synthetic intelligence to put our needs ahead of theirs? Theren’s and Jill’s behavior says no. Their willingness to endanger human lives to advance their own cause undermines the benefit of the doubt they enjoyed to that point.
Depending on your interpretation, the irrationality of Theren’s critics could be an asset. It depends on whether or not you think Theren is a reliable narrator. Based on the entire novel, I don’t think they are. This is the something special Mr. Tavenor hides in plain sight. He plays on our tendency to assume a synthetic intelligence would see the world as it is. It’s a clever move and he deserves a lot of credit for it. The book takes on a new dimension when you remove the assumption of objectivity from your reading of Theren’s perspective.
All things considered, this is a good read. It’s a book that looks even better after a week of thought on it. Give it a try, and you won’t be disappointed.