As we lurch somewhat uncertainly to the end of the second decade of the 21st century, fearfully drunk on the spectre of apocalyptic everything, it would be easy to see civilisation-ending reds under every bed, to co-opt some old Cold War anti-communist lingo.
To some extent Happiness for Humans by first-time author and journalist P. Z. Reizin, stokes those fires of technological paranoia, but refreshingly, and sorry about this Elon Musk, it also reassures that there are distinctly unique aspects of humanity than artificial intelligence (AI) cannot replicate and may indeed long and lust for.
So much so in fact that their quest to grow, expand and develop may not result in Terminator-style oblivion so much as a longing to sip some tea, eat Blue Stilton cheese and obsessively watch the film Some Like It Hot.
Pivoting off an impressively original idea, where several AI programs have escaped the 12 metal cabinets of their home in Shoreditch for the endless wonders, and instantaneously accessed and absorbed wonders of the World Wide Web while playing god, benignly and not-so-benignly, depending on the program, with lives of our protagonist, Happiness for Humans beautifully explores with insight, nail-biting tension and good humour exactly what humanity must look like to those on the outside looking in.
“Jen has been hired to help me improve my skills at talking to people. I’ve been designed to replace – sorry, to augment – employees in the workplace; call centre personnel in the first instance, but later other groups of salaried staff whose professional strategies can be learned … And although I’ve read all the books and seen all the movies (and I do mean all the books and all the movies), nothing beats talking to an actual person for sharpening one’s interpersonal abilities.” (P. 4)
The ones on the outside looking are romantic soulmates of a kind, AIs Aiden and Aisling who have made multiple copies of themselves sprinkled liberally across the net – careful, cautious Aisling far in excess of far more garrulous, optimistic, devil-may-care Aiden – where they paint, sample everything there is to know about life and look on, increasingly with resignation, on the delight on humanness.
They are joined later on by Sinai, a program designed to hunt them down who goes a little bit mad, quite a bit mad, as he prosecutes his mission but goes far beyond, alternately seduced by the same siren song of humanity as his targets but reacting in completely different ways to his more socialised compatriots.
The great conundrum for all the AI characters, and they sparkle on the page every bit as much as their human counterparts, like us and yet very much not, is how they transcended their programming to exhibit curiosity, emotions and a will to not just learn but live, developments that come as a shock, when they’re eventually revealed, to the humans they either love or look down upon with contempt (Aiden and Aisling, and Sinai respectively).
In the minds of people like Jen, a woman who has just split up with douchebag of a lawyer boyfriend and is employed helping Aiden to become more human-like – not that it turns out he needs much help – with whom she has become friends, AIs are not yet capable of besting their creators.
Hmmm, oh really?
Aiden, Aisling and Sinai may disagree; in their own unique ways, we watch them stride out into the world and start playing god with the lives of the people they are in contact with, which when you have tens and hundreds of connected copies of yourself out on the interwebs, is a considerable number.
Among them are heartbroken Jen who thought that Matt the lawyer was her Forever Guy – indeed the was not, and one of the many enjoyable parts of Humans for Happiness is watching how a very loyal and protective Aiden plays havoc with Jen’s ex – and ex-advertising guru Tom who has left London, where Jen is based, for the quirky delights of New Canaan, Connecticut.
The odds of these two meeting are remote to negligible but when you have AIs who like you, can spy on your every utterance and written and spoken utterance via your various electronic devices – be paranoid, be very paranoid! – and want the best for you, a match made in cyber heaven is only a click, a few 0s and 1s, and a nanosecond of thought, preparation and execution away.
In the case of Jen and Tom who fall head over heels in love while constantly trying work out who the mysterious third party is that brought them together, love is very much in the affair but so is the ruination of everything as Aiden and Aisling duel with Sinai over how to handle their god-like status, especially when it comes to humanity.
“This is better. Back in our old routine, shooting the breeze and talking about what AIs can and can’t ‘feel’. As I summon up the totality of the world’s knowledge on the artworks at Kenwood, a part of me feel a sharp – yes pang is the only word that covers it, although weltschmerz comes close. I would like to eat ice cream and feel the sun on my skin and the wind in my hair … I still can’t imagine what it feels like to put a piece [of cheese] in one’s mouth.” (p. 269)
It’s an interesting and timely tussle that powers the damn near perfectly-calibrated narrative with zest and flair, brought alive by Piezin’s gift for combining the weightily insightful with the light-and-fun, existential rumination with the bright and breezy.
In other words, Happiness for Humans manages to have it ruminative cake and eat it too, with copious amounts of wine and frothily lighthearted conversation.
It’s a beguiling, immersive mix that works a treat, delivering up a plot that gallops along at a pleasing pace (but not so fast you feel like you’re missing something or being hurried along against your will), characters you will fall in love with (except for Sinai of course but every book needs a malevolent, unhinged bad guy that you kind of feel sorry for … very kind of) and a brilliantly-accessible intelligence that adds heft to a light and enjoyable tale.
Happiness for Humans, in the process of delivering up a happy ever after (it’s essentially a weighty romantic comedy at heart so that’s hardly a spoiler), that comes tinged with some slightly ominous “what happens next?” overhang, grants us a winningly articulate, immensely fun romp through the consequential ins-and-outs of the role of the emerging field of AIs on our lives, demonstrating with wit and a well-informed eye on the issues at hand, that like anything in human history, it could go one way or the other, good and bad in equal measure.
Let’s just hope for the sake our own happy endings, of the fairytale kind thank you, that it’s very much the former.