Battlestar Suburbia by Chris McCullen, a Review

(Marginalized humans undermine the dominance of machines with the help of a sentient breadmaker and a hair salon.)

Pros: Clever set up, an interesting character, brilliant machine-world psychology.
Possible Cons: Probably not the book for those unable to suspend disbelief or those who like their dystopias grim and sincere.

Battlestar Suburbia begins as the story of Darren, a hapless everyman, and Kelly, a prickly woman accustomed to living outside the law. The pair accidentally run afoul of the powerful machine-world that controls their Dolestar and find themselves on the most wanted list.

Meanwhile, Pamasonic Teffal, a sentient breadmaker, is tricked into violating the law by her boss, a power-mad smartphone. The lives of these three outlaws, and several others, intersect in a bizarre but highly entertaining plot which moves along at a brisk pace.

The author brilliantly displays the mental workings of the sentient machines through the machine’s thoughts and actions. While a human might raise an eyebrow in disdain, a kettle might “click its switch with disapproval.” While a nervous human might piddle in their undies, a nervous breadmaker might void “battery power into her flour bin.” While a human might leave a question hanging in the air, a machine might let someone’s “processor turn over a few more cycles before replying.”

My second favorite feature of the book was the character Pam, a motherly and brave breadmaker. Despite being electronic, she faces the usual challenges of a working mother including a smarmy and morally challenged smartphone boss (…that was the thing about smartphones. The skilled ones were so good at giving great User Experience you didn’t realise until afterwards that it was you being manipulated). And she’s pressured to look good on the job, wasting her time on a faulty LED nail job because ‘the bleeding-edge technology appliance should always combine practicality with an attractive user interface.’

Circumspect, hard-working and conventional, but vaguely dissatisfied with her life, Pam has a soft spot for the underdog humans; she’s no homosapiensphobic nor a player of the phone app ‘Human Crush.’ Pam’s a character is ripe for change, and the roller-coaster plot allows much opportunity for change, but Pam stays true to her values. Finding herself on the wrong side of the power equation “she reminded herself as she turned the halogen element in her bread oven up full blast to solder the lift doors shut, was not a violent person. She was a breadmaker. She made cake, not war.”

As if getting into the heads of machines isn’t enough, the author follows the sentient breadmaker as she occupies several other realities: first she explores the landscape of the datasphere, passing through the relics of human social media (including many cat videos), she occupies a different machine, then she ends up inside a human. As a human:

The sensations were sharper, colours more intense. But above all, there were no extraneous data feeds to filter out, no buzzing alerts to dampen down. Humans must have them; no organism could survive without some mechanism for checking whether their heart was still beating, but that was done somewhere beyond an individual’s consciousness. Being freed of all that was intense, but, for a machine engineered to pay attention to everything, also blissful. Were she a terminally hyperactive machine, like a high – powered smartphone, for instance, she would pay a lot of money for this kind of relaxation.

What a terrific perception of the experience of a machine in a human body.

The book includes many notable characters, including a series of impressive ladies ranging in age from young to very (very) old. Our hero Darren is played mainly for laughs and even ends up in drag.

Favorite quote:

The fact they were both wanted terrorists, and the man was wearing sheer black tights and a “Hi, I’m Julie” name badge, didn’t deaden Janice’s loss, but it made it more difficult to express.

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