Dehumanized Labor: Review of Machinehood by S.B. Divya
Machinehood. By S.B. Divya. Gallery/Saga Press, 2021.
S.B. Divya’s Machinehood opens with a jibe about the moniker “smart”, quickly moving to the streets of Chennai and to our protagonist, Welga—an culinary aesthete, an atheist, and a prominent cis woman with an implanted artificial intelligence assistant, Por Que, and a steady job—performing as a “Shield”, a riot cop, for a pharmaceutical “pill” maker.
“Key word perform,” she says.
Machinehood is set in 2095, partially global in scope (except for the Islamic part of the world) as it moves from Chennai to San Francisco/Phoenix and even to a sovereign nation on a space station. The novel doesn’t announce its dystopic nature, but no other genre could present a world like this one. Here, humans take micro-machine pills to enhance bodily ability in a heavily automated world, competing for contractual jobs and better visibility—everyone is potentially a reality star thanks to ubiquitous surveillance technology. The narrative picks up pace when the Machinehood, a technologically advanced organization that claims to fight for the rights of automatons and animals, attacks and leaves a manifesto calling for an end to pill production and AI discrimination.
As the novel begins, its influences appear to be the classic hard SF of Asimov, Dick, Clarke, even Gibson. As fears about the singularity mount, Machinehood asks their tested questions about bodily autonomy, labour, surveillance, and the distinction between human and non-human sentience, adapted for a world that closely mirrors our own. The writing style is clunky but pointed, the science is plausible enough, and its three main characters are myopic about structural injustice: a product of their time. But, unlike its influences, the novel refuses to consider the kinships underlying human/animal/robot and the relationships between surveillance/fame, right/wrong, or the atomizations inherent to them. Machinehood is complacent enough about its dystopia to take no ideological positions at all.
The perspective shifts between Welga and her sister-in-law, Nithya, a practicing Hindu and biogenetics engineer, with occasional glimpses of a third perspective, Josephine Lee, a bioethics lawyer and Neo-Buddhist. Welga leaves the Shield for the military to pursue the Machinehood, but at this point, halfway through the novel, assumptions are still unexamined, written as if they are obvious exposition or apparent scientific fact. For example, it seems to be prescriptive that surveillance would do away with violence and crime, or that “protes” (protestors) are conservative but not in the same way as the devout religious characters, that the Turing Test is neutral, that fears about machine rights closely mirror antagonistic discourses against immigration, and that Welga’s hard-held belief that the Machinehood’s suicide bombers were from Maghreb—an Islamic nationcomprised of the Middle East and North Africa—can remain unexamined. Halfway through, I only hoped that the ethical ambiguities were an attempt at polyphony—a multitude of perspectives—where each character has identified with their particular lot in life and echoes the institutions they work for.
But while cultural differences are depicted between the American Welga and Chennai-based Nithya, no divergences appear between their fears or their beliefs: they both want to stop the Machinehood, are confused about the intersection of robots, labour and bodily modifications, but fundamentally would prefer to continue with their current dystopic mode of life. Multiple viewpoint characters, such as in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, or contrasting ones as in Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky or Nick Wood’s Azanian Bridges, open dialogue, examine history, hypocrisy, and hypothesis. Here, the contrast between Welga and Nithya only offers a small difference in setting.
And here, the polyphony stops; Por Que and Sita, the only other AI we encounter, elide the questions posed about their own autonomy. No other robots speak. And it feels particularly inattentive to reference the Indian nation, its chest-thumping, and its temples that are so close to contemporary home without a chapter or two about the Muslim community. The opportunity to give voice to Zeli, a teenage woman from Senegal, is lost, but Nithya’s kindness in allowing her into their home is made apparent. Ao Tara or her dakini followers are also relegated to the background. Despite the diversity of characters, only Nithya and Welga have voice and agency; the only weight and heft belongs to Welga’s techno-thriller chase to single-handedly save the world.
The novel, however, does return to an important question: whether there is any difference between machine and the technologically-enhanced human when they’re both dehumanized and exploited. But, despite its length, scope, and variation, it fails to respond adequately, drawing both human and robot to the field of further exploitation in the end. In my opinion, this failure is due to two specific confusions, the rights of the human and the rights to own property. In Race in American Science Fiction, Isiah Lavender III argues that robot narratives are ‘meta-slavery’ concepts revolving around the history of racial disenfranchisement and servitude. Machinehood references this propertied aspect of the robot without questioning its own assumptions. In a world where all homes have become tenements and where protestors pay for the property they destroy, it seems glib to accept the inviolable right to own and defend one’s property, as Welga and Nithya both aspire to. Similarly, a sharp distinction between skilled supervisory labour and unskilled robotic and mindless labour in the novel renders servitude (robotic or human) and autonomy unimportant.
This demonstrably has effects on the novel’s idea of the human, which does not budge from its vaulted anthropocentric position. Neither the dakini nor the slightly-changed Welga, the characters who are both AI and human, destabilize the idea of the human; instead, they subsume the robot into its own body, possibly for further alienation and dehumanization in their world of gig labour and nationalist hostilities.
From the inception, as Jennifer Rhee writes in The Robotic Imaginary, the robot has always been constituted by labour exploitation and processes of dehumanization—from plays by Karel Čapek to debates about post-scarcity. For a novel whose themes and paranoid monologues revolve around labour and the robot so dramatically, the novel’s central question seems more like an offhand allusion to these debates and less like an exploration of these relevant issues.
Ultimately, I preferred the sections that were more about surveilled Chennai and about Nithya, sections that dealt with finances, motherhood, and a lack of reproductive rights, amidst the polyphony of an aunt who belongs to an older generation of intentionally unmarried women and Zeli, her teenage house-guest. As Machinehood stands, confused and full of assumptions, it is just glorified American military action.
Shinjini Dey works as a freelance editor and writer. Find her at @shinjini_dey.
This review was commissioned by editor Jake Casella Brookins in February 2021 from a hard pitch; the author and editor had no acquaintance prior to the author’s involvement with ARB. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Gallery/Saga Press.