The Hugo and Nebula-nominated author of Runtime returns with a tale set in 2095, when humans are entirely dependent on pills that allow them to compete with artificial intelligence in an increasingly competitive gig economy. When a terrorist group called The Machinehood demands an end to pill production, a global panic ensues as an ex-special forces agent named Welga Ramirez is pulled back into intelligence work to stop The Machinehood.
From the very first page, Machinehood...achieves what the very best science fiction aspires to—it establishes our future by making it relatable, plausible, and infinitely strange at the same time. That Machinehood goes on to upend long-established laws of robotics, question longstanding political machinations, establish a credible voyeurism-based sub-economy, and take us on a thrilling who-done-it through the advent of the singularity are only a few of the novel's accomplishments. Machinehood also introduces us to the plight of humans caught within a future where everything is faster, better, and smarter—everything except humans ... Machinehood takes its rightful place alongside the work of William Gibson, Malka Older, Isaac Asimov, Pat Cadigan, Vandana Singh, and Rudy Rucker as it engages with many of the topics we are wrestling with already, from bodily autonomy and privacy, to 24/7 news, invisible labor, influencer culture, disability, and political and military decisions based on assumptions forged in the past, rather than looking forward. This is an ambitious goal, and one that Machinehood achieves without losing touch with its humanity.
Somewhat hampered by clunky exposition and unexamined assumptions, the novel is nonetheless digging into near-future economic and political anxieties in interesting ways ... The novel’s depiction of life under a total gig economy is fairly plausible and extremely bleak ... Machinehood doesn’t go very far in its critique, unfortunately. Except for the Machinehood’s demands for human-machine integration, no characters consider root causes of the system’s problems. Similarly, it broaches the issue of reproductive rights without really digging in ... there are a number of worrying ideas embedded in Machinehood . My hackles immediately rise, for example, over an American protagonist whose big dream is to convince her cowardly superiors to begin a military invasion of a North African Islamic nation—a frequently-referenced bogeyman throughout most of the novel, it’s especially disturbing that 'the caliph' is never even named ... Machinehood has what I can only call 'big cop energy' ... the first third or so of Machinehood is filled with enough awkward mid-conversation info-dumping that it breaks the flow of the story. Important elements of plot and character motivation don’t hold up to much scrutiny.
Divya has created a richly imagined and eerily familiar world filled with insecure workers cobbling together freelance gigs and families dependent on rapidly designed and home-manufactured vaccines to protect against new bugs. It’s a world without privacy, where every activity is performed for a crowd in hopes of getting tips—and a world confronting urgent questions about humans’ place in a society increasingly run by AIs. Simply taking a tour of this world is well worth the reader’s time, but Welga’s and Nithya’s quests also rocket the plot along toward an unexpected yet satisfying conclusion. Intriguing worldbuilding plus a fast-paced plot equals catnip for SF fans.