A Tunnel in the Sky

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by S. B. Divya

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 9, 2021

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S. B. Divya's Machinehood has action, but that is not its strong point; it's the characters. Most of the characters have positive virtues, but also weaknesses. Set in 2095, in a transformed world that has benefited from advanced robotics and bio-engineering, yet there have also been negative consequences at various stages of those advancements. Either true sentient artificial intelligence is still in the future, or else in hidden development, but many have accepted WAIs (weak artificial intelligences) and bots that do the majority of work. Bots still need supervision and oversight, which provides a few with employment, but many others have to rely on the gig economy. Privacy is almost unheard of, due to swarms of micro-drone cameras, both public and private, and everyone is connected to the network, broadcasting their work and making a tip jar available for those who appreciate their accomplishments. Sometimes that even includes their private, sexual encounters.

Welga Ramirez is a 'shield' operative, tasked with protecting high profile clients known as funders, those who finance the developments of new bots and nanobot pills. Welga's real name is Olga; the nickname derives from her younger brother not being able to pronouce her name in infancy. Welga is on a steady diet of pills to enhance her capabilities, from juvers (rejuvination), buffs (strength and endurance), to zips (speed and agility). Another that she does not take, but most others do, is flow, which increases the user's cognitive functions, enabling them to concentrate and multi-task. Welga's mother died from a bad reaction to flow, and since Welga feared their shared DNA might cause the same reaction for her, she had promised her mother she would not use it. But it may be zips that will be her Achilles heel. Welga is a former United States Marine, who had left the service following a botched raid against the caliphate of al-Muwahhhidun in the Maghreb. She was betrayed by her superiors, all the way up to the Commander-in-Chief, and was the only one of her comrades to have survived. She suffers from survivor's guilt, and anger towards those officials. The skills she learned in the military are still used in her security work, but they mainly guard against unarmed protestors. That changes when one of the funders is attacked and killed, with the assailants dying from suicide bombs.

Shortly after that, an anonymous source releases the Machinehood Manifesto, declaring machine intelligences to be equal to humans and other sentient animals. Another point to the manifesto is against nanobot pills, which it says is making slaves of humanity just to keep up with the bots. The prime suspect is al-Muwahhidun, whose empire is not connected to any of the world's networks, thus there is next to no information from that area. Yet the caliph is believed to shun bots within his borders, so why would he side with bots, intelligent or otherwise? Perhaps he is funding another group as a means of disrupting order in other nations. Welga is brought back into government work for the JIA, the Joint Intelligence Agency, but she is once again stymied when superiors do not allow her to complete a mission, so she goes rogue once again. She is aided by her sister-in-law, Nithya, in Chennai, who has been working a gig job for one of the major pill developers. That company denies access to information that might help Welga determine why zips may be causing periodic seizures. Another anonymous source sends Nithya a lengthy report about similar complaints against the company. That information leads to the discovery of who is behind Machinehood. My only complaint about the book is I had already figured that out before the reveal. Otherwise it's a gripping, emotional roller-coaster of a story, with the fate of all humanity hanging in the balance.

Welga is obsessed with her work, as she was in the military. She fully acknowledges she would lay down her life for her country, for humanity in general, but not necessarily for her military superiors. That obsession frequently interferes with her personal life, with her family and her partner. Nithya has personal problems of her own, major disagreements with her husband, hardships when Machinehood knocks out satellites that control bots and the network, as well as aiding a co-worker who has had to flee her country in the wake of the caliph's move into Senegal. Crises abound, but so does cooperation and perseverance. I have to skip over a lot of plot details, but in the end it is not Welga's fighting expertise that saves the day, it is her ability to communicate. Many villains have a logical, and sometimes sympathetic, basis for their actions. Welga is able to use her own history, and her opponent's history, to tap into their basic humanity and empathy. Some might say it is too pat a conclusion, but they'd be wrong. If adapted to film they would probably want to add more explosions. That would be completely missing the point. As far as I know this is a stand-alone novel, but there is still much food for thought for what might happen next. Highly recommended.


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S. B. Divya

March 2, 2021

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