Rating: 5 out of 5
In Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s brilliant novel Machine’s Last Testament, Suzhen is just a petty bureaucrat. She’s a “selection agent,” who gets to decide which immigrants will get to join society in Anatta. Most immigrants have been displaced by war–the war that Anatta’s governing AI, Samsara, wages. Each citizen is watched over by a program called “guidance” that monitors their every move, their every heartbeat. Suzhen is only allowed to choose a certain number of refugees to allow in. When she’s introduced to Ovuha, she has already reached her quota. She can see that Ovuha is exceptional, however, and takes the only option left to her: she is allowed to sponsor a refugee herself, for whom she will be responsible.
The characters make me want to fall in love with them. Suzhen was a refugee herself, and she has a secret or two in her past. She has more empathy for the refugees than some of her peers. She’s startled by Ovuha’s self-assuredness, something rare among the refugees. Ovuha is an enigma, clearly more than she seems, but Suzhen has no idea what. She comes to long for Ovuha, but she’s unwilling to abuse her power over her. Suzhen also has an occasional lover called Taheen; they’re a fashion designer and socially well-connected. (Content note for explicit sex.)
The text is like poetry in narrative form. Every word seems carefully-chosen and perfect for its use. It’s like water that runs over smooth stones–perfectly smooth on the surface, and containing so much underneath. The action in this is slow and unwinding until near the end, and in most authors’ hands I might have felt restless with that. In Machine’s Last Testament the narrative gripped me so thoroughly that this was never a worry. The language is entrancing. There are themes that touch on issues like immigration, war, refugees, and so forth, but they’re never heavy-handed; they’re a natural part of the storyline.
I’ve already read some of the author’s other books that engage in some similar AI-related issues, such as And Shall Machines Surrender [review] and Then Will the Sun Rise Alabaster [review]. These stories feature artificial intelligences that are explored in unique and fascinating ways. There are strong female characters with a variety of personalities. There are characters with pronouns other than he/him and she/her. There are same-sex pairings. It’s so wonderful to have a fictional universe that luxuriates in these things rather than simply admitting they exist (don’t get me wrong, there’s also an important place for those).
I’m addicted to these stories. I hope the author puts out more of them!
Samsara’s wisdom protects every citizen, especially from themselves.