Amid the shifting desert sands of Lavie Tidhar’s novel Neom, a melancholy robot searches for something to believe in.
Earth has changed since people first took to the stars. In the wake of wars that human beings depended on AI to end, nomadic groups sift the sands for defunct technologies to peddle to collectors. Cities spring up in the deserts, their residents eking out a weary existence. Struggling beings dream of leaving the planet behind.
Mariam, who looks with longing toward the skies, is both fortunate and not in Neom, a city where inequalities still exist, but where a kind of peace is possible. At one of her several jobs in a flower shop, she encounters a decommissioned robot who wants a flower, but who can’t say why. For her, it’s an opening to be kind; for the robot, it’s the start of an uncharted journey to awaken his golden once-companion, who was constructed by a terrorartist.
Across the land: AI shift and awaken. The sands move. Certainties dissipate. And memories better left packed away creep at the edges of people’s minds, defying the protections of time and neuromanipulation. The city below Neom also knew an uprising like this, before it disappeared into ash; those who look toward history for warnings are put on edge by the creaking, onward march of innumerable mechanical limbs.
In his signature style, Tidhar laces his future-set, fascinating tale with biblical references and nods to science fiction classics, here revitalized with added empathy. And though the residents of Neom have valid reasons to fear the AI they left behind, there are hints that the beings they made in their likeness may have something more to contribute than violence: they feel. They yearn. They believe. And they love. Neom is an extraordinary and compassionate trek into the hearts of AI.
Michelle Anne Schingler
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