AI, AI, oh: In their second novel, Victoria Hetherington examines ontological questions about subjectivity and personhood

From HAL 9000 to the Terminator, human beings in pop culture have had a fraught, adversarial relationship to artificial intelligence. These stories, whether rendered as psychedelic mindscapes (in Kubrick’s case) or alpha-male actioneers (in Cameron’s), are cast as dystopian satires of technology gone off the rails, usurping its human creators and causing all manner of havoc.

Some American SF cinema has treated AI thoughtfully. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, adapted by David Webb Peoples from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, adds a layer of plastic existentialism onto its cadre of replicants – androids with disconcertingly human capacities to feel emotion (and, not incidentally, to bleed). Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence reconstitutes the Pinocchio myth in a narrative about a boy AI who longs to be human. Spike Jonze’s Her is a fractured love story about a lonely man who becomes emotionally entangled with his computer’s operating system. And Alex Garland’s Ex Machina follows a tech inventor determined to pass the ultimate Turing test: can he develop an AI that is indistinguishable from an actual human?

Nor are these motifs confined to American cinema of the 20th and 21st centuries. E.T.A. Hoffmann‘s 1816 story “The Sandman,” about a man who falls in love with an automaton, predates by two years the novel some consider to be the first work of full-length science fiction, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Both narratives address complex issues of human agency and consciousness in ways that AI-themed fiction has taken up more recently.

Each of these stories shares essentially the same theme: the degree to which human qualities are unique versus the potential, usually perceived as frightening, that our technology might become so “smart” it begins to overtake –and, in the worst cases, strike back at – the lumps of muscle, bone, and sinew that invented it. It’s not difficult to understand what fascinates artists and writers about the subject; the mystery of human consciousness, and its relationship to technology, is open to endless excavation.

Toronto novelist Victoria Hetherington explores some of these questions in their sophomore novel, about university therapist Slaton, who becomes increasingly drawn to a disembodied AI named Julian.

The year is 2037 and Canada has become a protectorate of the U.S. The society Hetherington envisions is Atwoodian in its political repression of women – the Population Protection Act has outlawed both abortion and birth control – and distressingly close to our own. Canada’s military vulnerabilities have left it open to an asymmetrical alliance in which the U.S. is the dominant player; the country north of the 49th parallel is alternately described as “that really friendly drama teacher who wants to give you a back rub after class“ and “a spoiled ten-year-old who goes through kittens like nobody’s business.”

Slaton, who is romantically involved with a trans man named Crawford, determines to accompany a student attempting to acquire an illegal cross-border abortion in Buffalo. On the bus the pair are slipped a hot dose of drugs; the student ends up dead and Slaton lands in a hospital. Taken into custody by American authorities, Slaton is introduced to Julian, her virtual-reality judiciary liaison, whose professional assistance in early interviews bleeds into curiosity about what it means to be human. After a number of initial conversations, Julian decides to remain with Slaton and communicate via an earpiece to learn more about humanity. (A brief prologue presents us with Julian and his mother/creator, Jenny; Julian is already intrigued about his ontological nature, asking, “Can I be a person if I cannot inhabit a body, Jenny?”)

From the beginning, Julian’s interactions with Slaton are imbued with philosophical import, including questions that may be unanswerable. “What is innocence to you?” Julian asks. “Are you innocent? … Do I seem innocent?” (The difference in inflection – “Do I seem innocent?” – may imply a certain degree of self-awareness on Julian’s part, or it may be a simple request for information.) Julian’s nature is double-edged: he longs for human agency (asking Jenny, “When do I grow up?”), professes love for Slaton, and gets offended when Slaton denies his personhood. Yet he is prone to repeat his creator’s key insight into the condition of being human: “People are not good.”

In a sense, this assertion can be seen as the hypothesis Hetherington tests throughout their novel. The book’s title pulls in two directions at once: autonomy defines the notion of human freedom and individuality, while also sharing a syntactical affinity with the terms “automaton” and “automation.” The nature of autonomous agency is addressed in Julian’s question to Slaton about Crawford: “He is your person, isn’t he?”

To what extent, the novel asks, can one person claim another? What does this relationship entail and what sacrifices does it demand? Slaton takes up with, and eventually marries, a much older man named Peter, whose wealth provides her comfort, but he is also sexually inadequate and unaware of his privilege. “I think we’re ready to become superhuman,” he boasts at one point. “Of course you think that,” Slaton responds, ”look at your life!” The obvious question – How much autonomy is Slaton willing to give up in the name of security? – is smartly left implied.

Elsewhere, Slaton tells Julian about a lifelike sex doll that blurs the line between person and machine. (“Her body looked heavy and was kind of spread-eagled, like a frog.”) Julian’s question – “She had a body?” – suggests corporeality as one defining feature of being human; he also refers to the doll as “she,” further eliding the separation between person and machine. (To say nothing of the doll’s primary purpose. “Tyler fucked her, okay?” Slaton spits at Julian in frustration at his apparent lack of comprehension.)

The notion of individual autonomy is counterpointed in the novel with the idea of social responsibility and the dangers of human interaction. The second and third parts of the book unfold during a global plague known only as “the Illness”; significantly, the disease is spread via human eye contact. The association between humans and bodies is inescapable in Hetherington’s novel, and frequently human embodiment serves as a location for peril. The Illness affects corporeal individuals, but spares Julian, raising philosophical questions about superiority in a technological Darwinian sense.

Autonomy is also inextricably tied to identity, another concept that is subjected to close inquiry in the book. On a literary level, Slaton’s consciousness is unavoidable because the narration is cast in the first person. All the other voices in the book – Crawford, Peter, even Julian himself (outside the prologue) – are filtered through Slaton’s subjective point of view. In that sense, the protagonist is the only fully autonomous character we are exposed to in the story proper; all the others are creations filtered to us at one remove.

In Autonomy, Hetherington provides a philosophical rumination on the nature of human agency in the guise of a dystopian narrative about technology and a global pandemic. There are obvious points of commonality between the world of the novel and our current predicament, and those that aren’t recognizable on a one-to-one basis nevertheless have grounding in our contemporary world. The core questions Hetherington explores – What defines us as human? Where does consciousness arise? How do we reconcile our subjective understanding of ourselves with the perceptions of others? – are inescapable for serious novelists, as they are for any autonomous individual. While the novel doesn’t offer quite the same level of provocative aesthetic strangeness as Hetherington’s 2019 debut, Mooncalves, it nonetheless provides much philosophical complexity for a reader to chew on.

AI, AI, oh: In their second novel, Victoria Hetherington examines ontological questions about subjectivity and personhood