Our Sister Again- Sophie Cameron featuring Q&A 

Imagine a world where loss is only temporary, that you can be rebuilt from your digital footprint and ‘returned’ in android form to your loved ones, a world where no families have to be torn apart by grief, no one has to lose anyone ever again.

Sounds rather tempting at first doesn’t it. Many books for older children have dealt with the concept and consequences of ‘beating death’- Scythe Trilogy in YA and Show Us Who You Are in middle grade in recent years for example, and many other books have dealt with the ethics and ‘personhood’ of Artificial Intelligence particularly when it becomes sentient, more than algorithms, such as last years Every Line of You by Naomi Gibson, at Middle grade Adam 2.0 or Troofriend . Sophie takes the heritage and recent interest in the topics and combines it with her experience of writing about grieving families especially teenagers at YA and creates a story that breaks our hearts and makes us think.

I was lucky enough to participate in a Q&A with Sophie Cameron and her responses to my questions punctuate my review.

Our Sister Again Sophie Cameron

Three years ago Isla’s big sister Flora died, and today she is coming home, well, the robot reincarnation of her is anyway, and not everybody is happy about this top secret experiment and they are making their opinions known in threatening ways.

As the perpetual 15 year old Flora returns to the isle, Isla’s world is turned upside down with emotions, because how can you grieve for someone who is technically right there, albeit made of metal and silicone chips instead of flesh and blood. And as their father refuses to even see her, can it ever really be Flora, or just other people’s projections of her simplified to zeros and ones, can robots have souls?

Our Sister Again Sophie Cameron
Sophie Cameron. look out for her answers throughout the post.

Sophie makes direct reference to one of the definitive novels in the Sci-fi Artificial Intelligence genre within 4 chapters- Do Androids Dreams of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick which was consequently loosely reimagined into the film Bladerunner but both of which explores the concept of humanity and asks questions of the ethics & methodology of AI study through positing the androids as more human than the actually human characters. But whilst DADOES & Bladerunner launched a million cyberpunk imaginations, Sophie Cameron takes this concept down to earth by placing us in a rugged desperately rural, isolated yet close-knit Scottish island community- a sort of earthy, cosy sci fi shall we say, Bladerunner meets Katie Morag.

However, this humble setting doesn’t dull the blade that slices our emotions and causes us to look deep inside the messy dark parts of growing up and the associated loss. In fact the question of the ethics of AI for both the human and non-humans involved is much more personal and relatable in this everyday setting and family than in a futuristic or dystopian setting, real people struggling with real reasons to doubt or be afraid of new mysterious technology alongside the emotions of coming face to face with someone you lost- and in an incarnation before that loss as if it didn’t happen.

 

It’s interesting how you draw upon many AI cultural sources and yet make it ‘cosy’ rather than high-tech sci-fi- I described it as Bladerunner meets Katie Morag- would you say that is fair?! and what were your reasons and motivations to posit the discussion of futuristic tech within a rugged, isolated community? 

I love that description! Its amazing!

I think that the juxtaposition of something that is so so very advanced and futuristic is maybe naturally associated with big cities and so often sci fi films are in a city setting, and then that versus a Highlands setting; which a lot of people more naturally associate with the past, history, the pastoral setting, it is not built up and there are people speaking Gaelic which is an ancient language, and indeed they speak it in the book; its a huge contrast to the expected.

However, its interesting because those people are often major internet users because it’s where they can meet and make friends with people they wouldn’t likely meet within their communities as well as logistical reasons. 

I like the contrast between -the place you wouldn’t quite naturally expect a sci-fi story to be set. It’s a bit cool.

On the subject of loss, Sophie is very fair to the reader, she has experience in writing about grief and so understands and acknowledges how tantalising this concept of ‘returned’ may be, and indeed many young readers may have experienced grief of a loved one and wish they could have one more hug, conversation or afternoon with them, let alone to have them ’ back’.

Sophie gently honours how that pain doesn’t really go away, even after a few years; grief has a life, it is a living ocean, sometimes raging and dangerous, other times smooth just rippling under the surface and sometimes a waterspout touches down out of the blue, awakening feelings we haven’t considered for so long. We see this in how Isla has these moments where her grief strikes and emotionally floors her, even with the returned Flora often accompanied by deja vu, reflections or flashbacks to similar moments in the early days of grief. 

This relatable emotional state is so much more potent and Sophie leans into the dichotomy of disgust and desire to explore the ethics of ‘bringing back’ the dead through AI and their digital footprint.

I also felt parallels with Channel 4’s Humans in the pains of self awareness for AI, in how returned Flora feels trapped in the 15 year old life of the real Flora, whilst both the world has moved on and she is capable of much more but restricted due to the experiment. Why was it important to build on the humanity of AI and empathy from the reader, and questioning the reasons they are built across your novel? 

Hmmn, I think its more reflecting on who we are you know, rather than  ‘why empathy for the AI’ its more ‘why DO WE have empathy for the AI’. We as humans have a tendency to personify things, like even us with our robot vacuum cleaner, who we talk about as if he’s sentient but he’s not- I mean HE! He’s a bit of tech!

I remember reading a study about children playing with robots, and then the robots were smashed to see the children’s reaction and they were very upset. They reported that the robots were hurting as if they {the psychologists} were hurting an animal. Its really natural for humans, we put our feelings into these things and see ourselves reflected ; even though we may be aware they don’t have these feelings, we project our guilt, our empathy and even love.

So as to empathy towards AI its really interesting as to how far we let that go. I mean do we get to the stage where AI has rights? Theres even been talk in the EU about digital ‘personhood’ even though we ‘know’ they don’t have feelings like we do- or maybe they do we don’t know!

Its so easy to talk yourself into a tangle thinking about these things, but its interesting more what it says about us and our capability for empathy, and to humanise things.

First of all there’s the question of how fair is it to ‘bring back’ on the grieving.

We have the tendency as humans to anthropomorphise or personify, you only have to observe how a child will howl with loss if a treasured toy goes missing, we put our feelings into things, Toy Story did this beautifully again and again, and remarkably with millennial parents sobbing into our popcorn when we see the characters we loved in our childhood heading towards the furnace, awakening our connections with our own childhood and beloved toys, and perhaps pieces of ourselves lost to the past.

But the question of allowing this identification, connection and projection of emotion onto a robot to ‘stop people feeling the pain of grief’ is actually robbing people of healing. Deceiving people into loving and focusing on robots who for all their artificial intelligence cannot change their physicality to age or get away as the real person may have done as they grew older, they are literally trapped with a person in denial of facing their true loss.

Isla’s family but particularly the mother’s grief whilst would never have been ‘fixed’ is not permitted to progress and learn to cope in a world without her daughter, she is ‘frozen’ in time and emotionally and hasn’t confronted the pain because of the sticking plaster of a robot reincarnation. The ethics of allowing someone to avoid pain, and avoid moving forward in their life is a wider question but a worthy one for young people to consider, is it kinder to go through the cruelty of grief or to put the real loss in a box and love a robot who never ages, answers back or dies.

And there that brings us to the question of whether it is actually fair on the dead to ‘bring them back’. 

Outside the context of consent, considering in Our Sister Again they are largely composited from the deceased digital footprint, and there’s the questions of our digital life and interestingly I mistyped that first as digital lie, and to many people that may be the case of their social media representations. Whatever our personalities, whatever our neurological computation, we have an undeniable desire to be liked that is linked to evolutionary survival, that is not necessarily by everyone, but certainly by the people that we value and desire to respect or value us in return which would imply our ‘share’ of things whether in prehistoric times of food and shelter, or in today social status and reputation. 

This can cause us to omit, to exaggerate, to downplay or even to fabricate to fit what we think the target group or community want from us to accept us. This may mean we take a picture of children playing happily and peacefully in well turned out outfits, and not the picture from 5 minutes later where one has punched the other or they’ve spilt something down themselves or worse stripped off and is running around in their knickers hollering.

Whilst this is not a moral failing or a condemnation, we all know the negatives like FOMO or feeling like you’re not as good/popular/effective/pretty/slim as the people we see online, but it’s a bit scarier that an algorithm looks at our posts and make judgements about who we are from it, even more so if it thinks it can recreate exactly who we are from it. When the dead can’t click on ‘not interested’ or explain their motivations, you wonder how much of the programming is the true person and how much is how they want to be perceived and how much of a gulf is between those.

Even more so when we see in Our Sister Again how the bits ‘missing’ from the online life are filled in by interviews with family and community, Isla reflects on how she omitted things from the interview, like the arguments and the moodiness and wonders what others left out

This is a natural and important question about how we project grief and perception of others because we are constantly reminded, its rude to speak ill of the dead, and we tend to remember the positives about a passed person than the bad times, which skews the way we see a person. Then there’s the factor that young deaths in particular are treated differently, we see the loss of young life as worse than that of older people- think how young musicians (such as members of the 27 club) who die from drug overdoses become ‘geniuses taken too soon’. However in our society if a child dies particularly from an illness then they are basically sacrosanct, nothing bad whatsoever can be said about them, whether that is healthy for the people who are left behind or not.

But how good is that to recreate a person based on all the good or projected good things about them and ignoring the messy and dark sides of them, is it truly that person or is it what we wish them to be, and is that fair on the dead to be made angelic versions instead of who they truly are? 

Whilst there are dark sides to us all, and indeed some of us would like to flick a switch and get rid of our depression, anxiety, temper, or inability to hold down a relationship, there are many ‘negative’ traits that people actually value in themselves even if everyone doesn’t like them, for example a sarcastic or dry sense of humour, obsessional about hobbies or whatever, and to be erased of those things because someone doesn’t like to admit them like you had a mouth on you if you were angry is that really you without it? For those of us with depression or anxiety, is it truly us if the AI is just us on ‘good days’ and how many things have we learned about ourselves and overcome whilst in the dark pit? Is that really us, is the growth erased if the returned ‘us’ has never struggled?

Are we really doing the dead or ourselves an injustice by personifying the good stuff or stuff we liked? And in turn to project all that onto a robot who as AI is capable of so much more than being a talking doll or comfort blanket.

You make direct reference to Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep in the text, and indeed there are are overlaps with exploring the ‘humanity of AI’ between these two novels. Was this intentional and what other books and films played influence with your writing in Our Sister Again? 

I indeed read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep a long time ago and it was influential so it was important for me to give a nod to that in the text. 

I did find inspiration to start percolating the story from Channel 4 Humans and the episode of Black Mirror called ‘Be Right Back’ which similarly discussed a service where people could reconnect with a AI version of a lost one and the effects on the people left behind and surrounding them.

As for books, I actively tried to avoid books about AI when I was writing, I find I worry about being too tied up in the authors’ vision of AI or that they have great ideas you want to nick but its not necessarily a good fit for your story. However since I finished I’ve read a few AI books.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun is an amazing book on AI and Elle McNicholls Show Us Who You Are which has a similar theme of reconnecting with lost ones but using holograms instead of AI. But I’m so glad I read them after as they have such wonderful ideas I would have been tempted to steal!

Nina the interview host adds: Yes in preparing for working with your book I read Klara and the Sun and I found its really interesting that in that book it comes at the reader from a different perspective; that is as Klara we are in her perspective. However in Our Sister Again there’s a wider Birdseye view of the story, from different characters and especially from child and teen characters there’s this real feel of querying the importance of growth and change as a person making it more marked how the returned Flora is being ‘left behind’.

Elle McNicholls is a favourite writer of mine, and indeed the autistic spin she brings to this topic is interesting as a comparison because so often neurodiverse people are wrongly described as robots in their routine or that they appear unfeeling, and as a neurodiverse person myself that enrages me, I have often felt a misfit or ‘broken programming’ to those in wider society.  It further goes to underline what is explored here and there, that its impossible to truly capture a person, and even more so if they don’t, neurologically speaking, ‘colour inside the lines’ like neurotypical people do.

Whilst I’ve not personally read Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, I have read Never Let Me Go which deals with the humanity and ethics of cloning, in the book this is of real humans for purposes of perfect match donor organs, and the repulsion by wider society towards the clones as not ‘real’ humans, that by being clones they lack a ‘soul’.

This ties in as an interesting counterpoint to Our Sister Again, the way we can personify, even care for things like AI and yet not do the same towards real humans is interesting and says a lot about us as a species that we can love and defend a robot, and violently tear other humans apart emotionally and physically.

There’s the quiet questions of how we sometimes forget to put the same energy and empathy into people. For a wider example we may be disturbed at the thought of fictional robots enslaved to people’s grief, and yet there are millions of people in indentured labour around the world, there is real poverty in our own towns and cities, there is currently a war going on on in Ukraine but as each day slips by it seems that it becomes less shocking. It begs the question if we are capable of so much empathy and love for things, why can’t we treat other humans the same? Why do we have the capacity to make ‘things’ human-like and equally other humans like ‘things’?

Within the book this is explored in how the relationship between the girls’ parents breaks down as their mum becomes obsessed with bringing Flora back, against their dad’s weighted judgement and feelings, and how she has been negligent of her younger daughters’ emotional needs in her pursuit. The way the island community has grieved as a group for a teenager lost to illness and yet turned a blind eye to the struggles of a family that has lost the father in an accident.

However, there are interesting insights and parallels that apply to autonomy that come back to these concepts of projection from the grieving individuals which readers can take to their own lives, and consider when am I myself like the returned Flora?

When do people just want to see the good and not see the messy side? When do people just want me to stay frozen and not grow as a person because it fits their emotional state and not mine?

It’s natural for parents to feel a sense of grief for the child they have nurtured as they begin the pain of adolescence, and the sense of loss of the innocent ‘angel’ they remember (or reframe) replaced by a persistently moody, shouty, insecure goblin of a teenager. This is of course at the risk of clipping the growth of an individual similar to recreating them in robot form. Flora, the returned, feels trapped in the 15 year old world of Flora, rather than the 18 year old about to embark on independence that she would have been if she hadn’t died, and indeed all her peers have moved on and grown, yet she is literally trapped in other’s memories and projections of her. 

Sophie nudges the reader to not let themselves be trapped in the projection, and to be sentient and autonomous to our own needs, wants and growth than the fixed memories of others.

I hope you’ve stayed with me through this meander through philosophy and how this is bound up in the tale of Our Sister Again by Sophie Cameron.

I highly recommend this book to be read widely, by adults too, as Ive picked out, through the tale of AI, we explore a lot of what it means to be human, and through the struggles of an android, we scratch at the experience of a adolescent picking their way through to personhood as an adult.

Please check out the other stops on the tour, other bloggers got to ask some fascinating questions about other topics within the book, its very much worth the effort!!

Our Sister Again by Sophie Cameron is published by Little Tiger

Thank you for my copy!

2 thoughts on “Our Sister Again- Sophie Cameron featuring Q&A 

  1. Bladerunner meets Katie Morag 😂😂 I love the idea of this being set somewhere really rural.
    This sounds great though and so interesting to read both your review, as ever, and Sophie’s answers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Rachael, indeed the island setting is what intrigued me as much as the AI factor! It really adds a different flavour to the usual urban futurism

      Like

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