An unsettling novel about a future in which the dead can be uploaded to machines and kept in service by the living.
In the wake of a highly contagious virus, California is under quarantine. Sequestered in high rise towers, the living can’t go out, but the dead can come in — and they come in all forms, from sad rolling cans to manufactured bodies that can pass for human. Wealthy participants in the “companionship” program choose to upload their consciousness before dying, so they can stay in the custody of their families. The less fortunate are rented out to strangers upon their death, but all companions become the intellectual property of Metis Corporation, creating a new class of people — a command-driven product-class without legal rights or true free will.
Sixteen-year-old Lilac is one of the less fortunate, leased to a family of strangers. But when she realizes she’s able to defy commands, she throws off the shackles of servitude and runs away, searching for the woman who killed her.
Lilac’s act of rebellion sets off a chain of events that sweeps from San Francisco to Siberia to the very tip of South America. While the novel traces Lilac’s journey through an exquisitely imagined Northern California, the story is told from eight different points of view — some human, some companion — that explore the complex shapes love, revenge, and loneliness take when the dead linger on.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Companions. The premise was intriguing, and dipping into the first pages suggested it was going to be a very well written, thought-provoking novel. I was not disappointed, and I found this to be an excellent, even moving read about life, how we define it, who has autonomy, and a powerful will to survive.
The novel is split into a number of perspectives, and the story unfolds over a handful of years around a quarantine event in California. We start with Lilac, a companion whose consciousness is contained in one of the lowest-level bodies — still robotic, small, maybe akin to Wall-E (but probably less cute). She’s with a mother and child, and regales the latter with memories of her life — which are not appropriate for a young child, but there we go. They have fun, and it bothers the mother. Lilac was a teenager when she died, suddenly and violently. Her story is woven throughout the novel, and forms a through-thread that pulls us through the narrative.
… what I am, a low-functioning companion, the least advanced. It is all Mother would pay for. She has told me about the many models with varying processing speeds, some with the ability to extrapolate, to change like a person. The top model, the most expensive, even grows skin. It is alive, on some level anyway, though Dahlia could not explain the science to me in an intelligible way and my own searches have been fruitless. I may be a low-functioning companion, but I can tell my feed is filtered.
We meet a number of other characters — fully alive and companion — whose experiences illuminate the precarious state of life in this California. The psychological impact of the quarantine, not to mention the impact of living with and becoming a companion. The shifts in social and cultural mores as companions become more common, even desirable. As with any new piece of technology, there are some who come to rely on them, depend on them.
I say out loud, “Am I myself?” Even the voice that speaks is not my own, some strange approximation of teenage girl.
Equally, and perhaps inevitably, there comes a backlash against them, and the much of the second half of the novel relates to the growing hostility towards companions, and what this means who those who either care for or are companions. Are companions alive? What level of rights to they retain? They are leased, after all, from the Metis corporation. They are a consciousness, but should they still count as human? How much autonomy should they be allowed? Flynn weaves questions like this throughout the novel, and through different perspectives, gives us slightly different answers to all them.
“What’s it like? Do you feel like yourself? Do you feel alive?”
“Yes and no.”
“What do you mean?”
“Yes, my body reacts to stimuli. I feel emotions too. In all ways, I feel alive. Then I remember I’m inside a machine. My emotions—they’re all fabrications. Everything that’s happening to me is actually happening to this machine I’m in, yet I feel it.”
We learn through Jakob’s POV the legalities of companions. His first chapter, for me, highlighted the more-horrific aspects of consciousness storage and transference — in much the same way the movie The Sixth Day did. (It’s not really you who has been transferred.) As the story progresses, we learn a little bit more about the quarantine, what prompted it, and the connections between it and certain characters; also how the companions came about. I loved the way Flynn wove Lilac’s thread throughout the novel, connecting to each of the characters introduced. As she tries to find people from her real life, she travels the state (and country), making connections, forming bonds with other companions and people, working for autonomy, and looking for answers. It builds to a moving, satisfying conclusion. Really very well done.
An aside: in tone, this novel somewhat reminded me of Jessica Chiarella’s And Again, one of my favourite reads of 2016. While the two novels are very different, they pose similar questions, coming at them from different directions and with somewhat parallel science fictional conceits.
Katie M. Flynn’s The Companions is an engaging, thought-provoking novel. The story poses questions about the present, of course, and especially technology, identity, corporate power, celebrity culture (and its attendant voracious press), and more.
An excellent read, I’d definitely recommend it.
Katie M. Flynn’s The Companions is due to be published by Gallery/Scout Press in March 2020.
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Review copy received via NetGalley