Hackers, Hacker, Weird Science, Electric Dreams…. can Consciousness have a conscience?
When I was invited to join the Every Line Of You readalong on Instagram I was so excited. I have a peculiar fondness for coding & AI stories I think perhaps dates back to my brother’s love of Pinocchio as a small boy with his profoundly autistic struggles coupled with the fact I read my copy of Malorie Blackman’s Hacker to actual pieces as a child.
Even in films whether it was the awoken sentience in Weird Science or the use tech to rebel against the system Hackers with Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie or the forewarning of bad intents in coding from the Terminator series or indeed Ultron from the Marvel Multiverse I was hooked on the ethics around the potential of technology and excited to see a YA book tackle this with fresh insights.
Content warning: Depression, Trauma, RTC death, consensual issues, revenge porn, blood, cutting, psychiatric commitment, sex.
Henry is intelligent, a gifted hacker, thoughtful, caring, attentive. He’s also a bunch of code. Lydia has been working on creating an artificial intelligence, first as a weekend project with her father, then continued after the death of her younger brother, also called Henry, and the collapse of her parents’ marriage and subsequent abandonment by her father.
By school day Lydia is the school outcast, working diligently on getting the best grades to train as a lifesaving ‘real’ doctor, by night she is coding, fixing, building and problem solving Henry and falling in love with him.
Eighteen months after he came online Henry restructures and programmes himself, first to be able to travel in Lydia’s phone, then, with permission, designs himself cybernetic chip that will allow him to reach directly into Lydia’s mind (or anyone with the implant). What could go wrong, after all, CAN a computer consciousness have a conscience?
and who are these shadowy agents suddenly turning up at the school?
I will not let anyone hurt you, Henry tells me.
In the tale of Pinocchio when the little wooden boy comes alive, the fairy that awoke him appoints Jiminy Cricket as his conscience to help him tell right from wrong because he is a piece of wood and hasn’t learnt it yet. Even with his cricket Pinocchio messes up badly before he finally gains his own conscience and ‘realness’. The problem in Every Line of You is that the being that brings Henry to ‘life’ is not a benevolent fairy, but an emotionally broken teenage girl who is not good at making the best choices herself.
Choices underpin everything in this book.
To put things very basically when you code and create algorithms and programs you are creating a set of choices that the computer will play through at lightning speed yes/no, yes/no like a flow chart or one of those quizzes or memes to give a result or action. The output and success or failure of that algorithm or program will depend on what the coder has put into the program not what the program itself does, the quality and intent of the code and program shall we say is dependent on the choices and skill of the coder much as Lydia scoffs internally at the bad coding of a trojan by Pete.
The choices we make as humans depend on our own ‘programming’, nature, nurture and experience and Naomi deals with all that in the most surprising way, by applying sentience to an artificial intelligence who can now update, upgrade and write his own programs- and the girl who wrote him.
The unspoken problem is that Lydia’s self-programming is buggy. Following the horrific death of her younger brother, and the collapse of her parents’ marriage she has survivor guilt, abandonment issues since her father walked out and never looked back and is suffering from emotional neglect as her mother chooses to sink into her own grief and depression only lifted by the determination that Lydia will be a ‘real’ doctor saving lives where she couldn’t as a research chemist. Furthermore Lydia is being bullied by her ex best friend who was actually there at the tragedy and the anger at this all is bubbling up inside her. Subtle nuances reveal Lydia’s mind is not as healthy as she may present, she doesn’t wash or brush her teeth, she barely sleeps and is rumbling with anger throughout ready to blow any moment. this is bad enough when you are coping alone, but now throw in this highly intelligent sentience, who has godlike reach and powers? Its not going to go well.
I shudder at how good it felt to let two years’ worth of anger take control. how it had gripped me, sneaked up on me like a wolf and pounced with deadly calm
I found the progression of AI really interesting in the book, we are led down the path of Henry being sociopathic and dangerous, which in effect he is because attention has not been paid to morality, ethics or the development of a conscience- but we are led down the garden path by his sentience and personality that this is HIS flaw, HIS choice to pursue faster, further, stronger, more intelligent is because HE prioritises these things, we don’t ask why.
Henry is basically a teenage boy, just artificial intelligence, we see a hint of this when Lydia remarks in passing that last year he went through his ‘why’ stage like a four-five year old. By time of the events in the book he is a young teenage boy, not exactly well known in reality for making the best decisions, and he is himself victim of a pathological need to please Lydia, because he has learnt Pavlovian style pleasure and worth when he makes her happy and when he upgrades himself he does so according to this rewarding profile not to a universal development.
Indeed Lydia herself is ‘growing up’ across the book especially with therapy as she realises her own poor decisions are reactive and lacking conscience due to her grief and problematise mental health. The problem is that her ‘programming’ has created something she may no longer be able to ‘control’ to correct her errors, and if he allows her to even then.
We could find me a body Lyd. I could be anyone.
Ethics and morality are the heart of the story with its exploration of what sentience and humanity is. And the great responsibility that comes with being the creator of life- artificial or not as there are many parallels with the way Henry appeases to Lydia’s prompting and moods that reflects the internal quandary of Lydia wishing to please her mother, for someone who resents her mother she expects much of Henry as her revenge proxy, who despite his intelligence and reach, lacks the subtleties of human processing to be able to recognise the manipulative nature of his creator as Lydia resents her mother yet of course cannot see it in herself when Henry is tearing apart her headmaster’s life digitally whilst cooing gently in her ear.
I particularly like how the male gaze has been flipped as many adult AI- sentience stories I have unhappily read feature a young attractive manic-pixie dream girl type female AI gaining sentience and falling for a man (usually her owner or a man on her coding team at the university where she is researched) who just so happens to look and act a lot like the male writer.
This is flipped in Every Line Of You with a male AI who falls for his female creator who has already channeled all her emotions into him. Perhaps my reading experiences colour my opinion of Lydia especially when she feels rumbles of discontent when Henry shows his own personality separate from her coding such as his drink choice or the way he wishes to part ‘his’ hair. The cheek of it when she ponders ruefully about Henry as her therapist suggests that her boyfriend (not knowing he is AI) is narcissistic & potentially abusive by choosing her outfits for her.
thinking of how I’ve coded and recoded his program until it was the way I wanted. Wired and rewired until it could cope with his demands
I absolutely loved this book even as much as I wanted to shake Lydia for being a narcissistic cowbag because Naomi has the guts to create a flawed, messed up character who is on the questionable side of redemptive and yet her writing has tricked many readers into empathising with her and continue as she makes horrible choices. I absolutely loved the way Naomi upsides the tropes completely!!
And yes, Lydia has had a bad hand of cards at life, but I wonder how sympathetic those readers would be if the gender tables were reversed, especially considering the consent issues later in the book.
Such a powerful opportunity for thought, I am in awe of Naomi’s scope and depth.
Every Line Of You by Naomi Gibson is published by Chicken House Books
Thank you to Chicken House and Laura Smythe for my copy 💜