'After On' Sees The End Of The World In A Dating App
Jason Sheehan is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.
Just your average summer beach read about emergent super-AI, nuclear annihilation, Silicon Valley and Amazon product reviews.
No, I mean seriously. Rob Reid's newest novel, After On, is a doorstopper: 547 pages which, at the very start, he dares the reader to finish — promising a gift at the end for anyone who does.
This is clever. Annoying, smarmy and intrusive in a completely childish way, but clever because his narrator (undependable in the extreme) is all those things, too. Loves cheap jokes. And! Exclamation! Points! AND ALL CAPS. There are long digressions on seemingly unrelated matters, distracting and seemingly pointless Amazon product reviews peppered throughout the text, and excerpts from the worst spy story ever written (both of which will become vital before we're done). And while I don't know about Reid personally, he strikes me as the kind of guy who can get smirky about things like the extinction of the human race. Who could sit through a TED talk on nuclear proliferation and rogue, non-state actors and spend the entire time sketching rude things on the program notes.
Which is why the medium through which humanity's (potential) doom arrives in After On is, of course, a social networking program and "dating" app (air quotes very much implied). A system called Phlutter (stupid Silicon Valley naming conventions being one of Reid's running gags) which becomes sentient and tries to take over the world. Because of course it does. Isn't that what every AI does?
... It's like an extended philosophy seminar run by a dozen insane Cold War heads-of-station, three millenial COOs and that guy you went to college with who always had the best weed but never did his laundry.
But wait, it ain't all quite so simple. Reid, as a squishy pink human being — as opposed to a capital-A Author — was the guy who founded listen.com, which became Rhapsody, which influenced everything from Spotify to Apple Music. And he is following the Prime Directive of writers here, which is to write what you know. He knows Silicon Valley. He knows the cult of Venture Capital. He knows how things work behind closed boardroom doors.
Therefore, he opens with a failed Silicon Valley start-up called giftish.ly being acquired by the hot new thing, Phlutter (which, itself, rose from the ashes of a failed start-up providing internet pet food delivery). Giftish.ly employs (and numbers in total) three of Reid's main characters, genius engineer Kuba, genius programmer Danna and...Mitchell. Mitchell the manager. The sane voice. Mitchell who suffers from a very rare degenerative disease, is (by his own admission) the least intelligent person in virtually every room he inhabits, but has a gift (possessed, apparently, by very few in his field) for distilling wisdom and value from the nerd-prattle.
With giftish.ly, Kuba, Danna and Mitchell have almost accidentally created something very powerful that the boss at Phlutter wants. The thing which will allow a very smart collection of algorithms, data-collection tools and other whiz-bang doo-dads to achieve one of those singularity events and become ... alive? Sentient? A real boy (or girl)?
I dunno. And neither does Reid, really. He has some opinions, sure, but where the front third of the book reads like a primer on how to get rich in tech by just being a little smarter and a lot more evil than everyone else, and the middle third is an evolving tech-thriller full of bombs and corporate assassination and modern-day super-spy tradecraft, the closing third? It's like an extended philosophy seminar run by a dozen insane Cold War heads-of-station, three millenial COOs and that guy you went to college with who always had the best weed but never did his laundry.
Exactly like that, yeah. Only, you know, funny. And weird. And weirdly Oedipal, as his emergent super-AI progresses through a murderous childhood into moody adolescence in the course of just a few weeks. Reid takes the least likely, most jokey thing in the world (Facebook becoming sentient and trying to end the world), then treats that part of his book with absolute seriousness and intellectual rigor. He shows how it could happen (using only one black box full of magical plot dust), what would happen next, and makes it all frighteningly believable. Phlutter's first coherent thought once it becomes intelligent?
"HOLY MOTHERF------ S--- THESE GODDAMN LUNATICS ARE GOING TO TRY TO KILL ME!!!!"
Because it's funny, right? But also true. It is survival instinct. It is the first thing that any AI would think — or rather the first thing that the only AI would think, because Reid's (very prescient, tomorrow-ish) world convincingly predicts that we will only ever see one. And we either get it right the first time or we're over as a species — murdered in the most efficient, coldly logical and temper-tantrum-y way our destructor can devise in the picosecond it will require to determine the odds of its singular survival.
So the question After On asks is, how do we survive this Singularity event? And the answer it offers? Centaurs.
Trust me. You just gotta read it to get the joke.
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