Review: And Shall Machines Surrender, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

I want to make clear before I go into the actual review that I was unaware that Benjanun Sriduangkaew, the author of the book, was the notorious blogger “Requires Hate.” I saw the book on a stand at a library, decided it was worth reading, and bought it at Barnes & Noble; it was cheap enough at four dollars USD.

And Shall Machines Surrender follows physician and cybersurgeon Orfea Leung as she visits the AI-mediated Dyson Sphere Shenzen, where humans lucky enough to be chosen by the AIs that run the place live in utter luxury, and where a small superclass of humans get to merge with the AIs over time.

After she gets a temporary residents’ permit and a job as a doctor, she is witness to an impossible suicide, followed immediately by her being paired up with her old girlfriend, Krisanna, from the years when she was a military medic working for the largest mercenary group in known space, and her job is to solve the mystery of why those chosen to merge with the AIs, a choice they all eagerly sought, would likewise choose to commit suicide before the merger was complete. There had been hundreds of these mergers, and on one day three ended themselves, something which had never happened before.

There’s a lot of praise for the book but… I can’t really mirror them. The good stuff is simple: the book is unapologetically queer, which I appreciated a lot. No one even talks about it. Multiple sexes, various roles, all manner of personal peccadilloes, everything is acceptable as long as it’s consensual. There are three sex scenes, and they’re all quite brilliant, although all of them are interrupted as a way of moving the plot forward. For most writers, sex scenes are frequently used to illustrate character, and Ms. Sriduangkaew writes as if, once that goal has been met, the scene needed to end without any satisfaction to the characters or her reader. Her descriptive and vocabulary powers are quite remarkable, although one “big word” moment was also used in a complex metaphor that interrupted the flow of the story. Having to press “define” is easier and quicker on a Nook or Kindle than it is dragging out a dictionary, but that felt like a bit of a show-off.

On the other hand, the book fails in two major ways. The first is that, in a battle between human beings and AIs with large caches of resources, the human beings still have any chance at all. Yes, both Orfea and Krisanna are ex-military badasses with enhanced capabilities, but the idea that their meat could hold its own against metal assassins vast, cool, and unsympathetic came off as a bit unbelievable. The ending is very punchy, as if inflected with one too many watchings of The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The second is that the AIs themselves come across as confused and incompetent. There is a trope at work here, that of an AI forging a “unification” such that all other AIs want to join it, leaving the humans without AIs. I’ve used this trope in my own work, so I’ve thought a lot about it, and what bothers me most is the notion that the AIs, having found this capability… don’t use it. No research is being done into further states of uplift, no questions are raised about the possibility of a singularity or rampancy, and no handwaving is done to explain why either hasn’t happened yet.

There are other details at work here that I found off-putting. There aren’t many men in the story, and when they are present they’re depicted as unpleasant, unintellectual, and less capable of a healthy polymorphic perversity than the women. Turnabout is always fair play, I suppose, but it cheapens the effect. One of the “great galactic governments” is the Pax Americana, a full-on rendering of The Handmaid’s Tale “Gilead… in Space!” that somehow has survived after several generations without collapsing from the internal contradictions such arrangements have inevitably produced in the past.

This is Sriduangkaew’s first full-length novel. It’s complete and self-contained and it shows promise. There is the occasional axe being ground, however, although for much of the book that sound is dim and in the distance. Still, you should go into the work knowing that you’ll be hearing it.

Earlier: Nostalgia Isn't Optimism, and SF Writing Should Be Optimistic

Later: Frozen Is a Romance