Alan Turing once posed the question, “Can machines think?” The terms have been clarified since then, but the central difficulty of artificial intelligence stays the same: whether it’s possible to create a system whose responses go beyond programming and became actual consciousness. And what exactly is consciousness, anyway? Brain Thief, the latest novel from science-fiction writer Alexander Jablokov, is jammed full of half-mad technology, decapitations, clever riddles, junkyard sociopaths, and absent friends, but the quest for AI lurks constantly in the background. As the hero pinballs through a cavalcade of suspicious characters, a potentially deadly thinking machine stays two steps ahead. What does it want? And is it possible for a thing to have a dream?
Bernal is used to the oddities of his boss Muriel: the strange messages, the quixotic science projects. But when she disappears, leaving nothing but a cowboy boot and an urgent summons in her wake, Bernal realizes that the situation is even more out of hand than usual. Before she vanished, Muriel was funding an AI development program that had apparently been yielding some dangerously positive results. Bernal finds the lab ransacked, and there’s a nearly endless supply of suspects for the crime, not to mention The Bowler, the local serial killer with a habit of cutting off people’s heads. And everything appears to be connected in a way that doesn’t speak well for Bernal’s chances of surviving long enough to make sense of it.
A lot happens in Brain Thief, and as the mystery becomes increasingly Byzantine, it’s easy to lose track of who’s who. (This isn’t helped by Jablokov’s overuse of names that begin with “M.”) Still, a few minor digressions aside, it all winds up making sense, and as with all good puzzles, there’s a lot of satisfaction in watching the pieces fall into place. At its strongest, Thief is reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction satires, keeping Dick’s keen sense of absurdity, but losing the fearful misogyny. In spite of the occasional clunky expository dialogue, Jablokov shows a lot of trust in his readers’ ability to fill in blanks, and that, combined with a generous affection for all parties involved, makes a potentially claustrophobic narrative seem expansive. It may be more the impression of intelligence than the real thing, but as impressions go, it’s pretty convincing.