From robots stealing our jobs to sexbots that can hump all night, we’re in an age where AI is constantly in the headlines. Carme Torras’ The Vestigial Heart (nicely translated from its original Catalan by Josephine Swarbrick) takes those headlines and spins them off in a fascinating direction, taking us to a world where personal-assistant robots attend to our every human need, including helping us recover from our extinct emotions. This is a time of atrophy when thinking is positively discouraged and employees’ memories are wiped in the most radical form of GDPR imaginable, and where bioengineer Leo has been hired by the eccentric robotics mogul Dr. Craft to build a prosthesis to augment human creativity. So imagine what it would feel like to come from the twenty-first century, with all our complicated emotions and feelings, and wake up in this strange sterile place. This is what happens to a thirteen-year-old girl called Celia.
Celia has been sleeping for a century when she was placed in cryogenic hibernation until a cure could be found for her terminal disease. Now she’s awake, and the potential of how her humanity could change everything is obvious. Lu, Celia’s adoptive mother, is mystified by her. Silvana, an emotional masseuse who eschews techno in favour of what she can learn from ancient books, sees Celia almost as a kind of saviour, a child who can reconnect the human race to what being human really means. And then, of course, there is Leo, who sees in Celia the greatest potential of all.
But how does a newly awakened child react when she innocently holds the key to stop the rest of the world sleeps?
Carme Torras is a leading researcher in robotics and artificial intelligence so it’s no surprise that The Vestigial Heart covers some deeply academic ground. This isn’t shoot-em-up Westworld-type sci-fi, this is much closer to asking the deep ethical and philosophical questions raised by Spielberg’s AI or Asimov and Silverberg’s The Positronic Man (although, in this case, Celia is almost the blueprint on which The Positronic Man could have been based.) It’s thoughtful and profound, and careful not to scaremonger. In fact, Torras’ novel seems to imply that a human/robot balance is something to embrace if we can get the recipe right. But if we can’t - which is what the world looks like when Celia opens her eyes - we might be hastening ourselves towards Armageddon.
Torras’ cool, emotionally distancing prose works well considering the themes of her story but it takes a while to get used to, and quite a bit of her dialogue is very on-the-nose. There’s no subtext here, the characters just say it out loud. But stick with it because the destination is definitely worth the journey.
THE VESTIGIAL HEART / AUTHOR: CARME TORRAS / PUBLISHER: MIT PRESS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW