Autistic Book Party, Episode 37: Mirror Project

Today’s Book: “Mirror Project” by Michael Scott Monje, Jr.

The Plot: A wealthy businessman tries to build a robot body in which to resurrect his dead wife. But the AI consciousness that arises is not his wife, and is horrified by his coercive attempts at making her into something she isn’t.

Autistic Character(s): The author.

Let me just say this up front. This is a friggin’ terrifying book. It’s a book from the point of view of a protagonist who spends almost the entire book imprisoned by people who control her so completely that they can turn off her limbs, consciousness, and senses at will – and who don’t at all have her best interests at heart.

Just how terrifying and potentially triggering this book is will be obvious to anyone who reads the blurb. It’s important to note that it’s actually less awful than I was afraid it would be. It’s not written exploitatively, for shock value or titillation. It’s actually written quite well, and with a constant focus on what the protagonist is thinking and planning, how she is using the limited agency allowed to her to cope and push back against her situation. There are no rape scenes (although the threat of rape, and other violations, hangs constantly over the protagonist’s head). There is no tropey, SFnal mind control of the type that often happens in stories where a person can be reprogrammed (although the protagonist IS gaslit, constantly, by everyone). We know that the protagonist is eventually going to escape, because the book opens with a framing story in which she is narrating her origins to someone who downloaded a program of hers. These are small mercies that made “Mirror Project” a lot easier to get through than it could have been. It is still a TERRIFYING BOOK. I cannot stress this enough. I had a slow and difficult time getting through it, because AAAAAAAAA.

Yeah. So.

If we put aside these emotional concerns then there is a lot to admire about “Mirror Project”. There is a calm, unflinching groundedness to the way the book describes the protagonist’s situation, the options available to her, the reactions she has, and the choices she makes.

(I am having intense difficulty describing the protagonist with a name. The author refers to this series as the “Lynn Vargas universe”, but Lynn is the name of the dead wife that the protagonist is built to resemble, not the protagonist herself, so I cannot bring myself to refer to her that way. I am also not convinced that she/her pronouns are correct for this protagonist, but alternate pronouns are never mentioned or used in the book, so here we are.)

The author has obviously put thought and research into situations of imprisonment and isolation and their psychological effects. The people who the protagonist encounters during her imprisonment are also interestingly portrayed. Some are completely unreasonable; some have some sympathy and do some kindnesses for her, but still ultimately aren’t on her side; at least one is clearly unaware of the scope of what’s been done to her, and is manipulated into actions that harm her anyway.

Interestingly, there is one, small, blink-and-you-miss-it mention of autism in the book. This is in a scene where two characters are intensely gaslighting the protagonist and telling her that she does not have real volition and her actions are not real actions; they are “autism-like” behaviors. This small mention, I think, is very telling of where this kind of story might be coming from, and what it might mean for its author. Autistic people are not generally put into robot bodies and told that they are someone’s wife, but institutionalization and dehumanizing medical control is something that happens to a lot of autistic people, and abusive relationships are another thing that often happens. If you somehow merged those two nightmares together, “Mirror Project” is probably what you’d get. I don’t know much about the author or their history and don’t want to presume, but “Mirror Project” reads to me like the kind of book that is by and for survivors. It’s also an interesting angle on the ethics of strong AI, of the kind that an autistic author might be uniquely positioned to make.

Anyway, this book is going to be intensely triggering for many readers. But it does what it does very well. If you’re the kind of reader who likes reading respectful depictions of intense trauma, who feels seen and understood by that kind of story instead of wanting to run to the hills, then this book is for you. I’m glad that it’s out there. And now I’m going to go hide under a blanket and try to never think about it again.

The Verdict: YMMV

Ethics Statement: I have never interacted with Michael Scott Monje Jr. I bought an e-copy of this book and read it on my Kindle app. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was chosen by my Patreon backers. If these reviews are valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 36 And A Half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Alyssa Hillary, “Where None Have Thought To Go” (self-published, 2014)

[Autistic author] An autistic person named Mendel makes friends with a planet of sentient AI and becomes a cyborg. Along the way, he makes a decision that could change how the people around him think about autism.

This is a really interesting concept but the execution confused me. For instance: the other protagonist, Trevina, is surprised to hear that Mendel is not neurotypical; but only a few minutes later in the same scene she is thinking sophisticated thoughts about how difficult it has always been for him as an autistic person to operate in an NT world, without any indication that anything about these thoughts might be new. Soon afterwards, Mendel is justifying big decisions by saying that people have always refused to believe he can think – yet people close to him had no idea he was not NT until that day.

These parts of the story would work better for a character with a different diagnosis and treatment history, to such a dramatic extent that I wondered if the author had changed their mind about the character partway through writing and forgot to correct it – or if there’s something about how people are treated in this SFnal world that we’re not being told. As it is, despite some attempts at explanation, the motivation behind most of Mendel and Trevina’s actions remains opaque.

(Also, minor gripe: AI goes into Mendel’s brain and turns him into a cyborg without his informed consent, and no one including Mendel has more than a vague passing issue with this. Please don’t do that.)

I feel like, with a thorough edit, this would become a good story that has interesting things to say. I do like the way that the cyborg and AI characters’ minds are depicted. It’s certainly not a story that fails, in the sense of being insulting or dehumanizing, the way many NTs’ stories do. But the writing is so slapdash that most of its conceptual value gets lost in the shuffle. [Not Recommended]

*

A.C. Buchanan, “Puppetry” (Accessing the Future, April 2015)

[Autistic author] A war story about a soldier with a computer system in her brain that can take over her physical actions, and how she and her fellow soldiers manage a mutiny. Buchanan’s protagonist is not autistic, but has severe dyspraxia. The army’s system allows her to plan movements that look normal – but also prevents her from running away or taking any other initiative, even as basic as helping a wounded comrade without permission. Autistic readers will relate to the clever things the story has to say about cures, normalization, control, and autonomy. There is also an interesting thread about the accessibility implications of terraforming, which is something I hadn’t considered before. [Recommended-2]

*

Suvi Kauppila, “Wither and Blossom” (Samovar, March 27, 2017)

A story about a person who returns to the fantasy world that they and their autistic sister shared when they were young. I am not sure how I feel about the death themes in this story; the autistic character dies young of what is implied to be a suicide, although the adults in the story chalk it up to “wandering”. Most of the adults in these characters’ lives are quite ableist, and it’s only the narrator who takes the time to communicate with their sister and to share her world. It’s very easy for young dead disabled people in this type of story, as with tragic queer narratives, to be handled problematically. What saves this one for me is how the narrator genuinely values their sister, even when the people around them don’t. Their shared world is not merely a beautiful sad memory; both it and the sister herself are things that the narrator actively works to return to, even years later. The eventual success of these efforts presents the autistic sister as someone who both needs the NT narrator and has something to offer them, and whose world just might be more beautiful and real than the ableist “real” world. [YMMV, but I liked it]

*

Bogi Tak√°cs, “Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus” (Clarkesworld, April 2017)

[Autistic author] A story from the point of view of a sentient octopus, many generations after humans “uplifted” octopi and helped them communicate using a psychic interface. Of course, the humans were not completely benevolent when they did this – they wanted to use the octopi for something, and to use other humans as well. There are no autistic characters in this story, but it’s a story that interrogates the ethics of “animal uplift” tropes as only a story by a neurodivergent author could. [Recommended-2]

*

Richard Ford Burley, “I Fight Monsters” (Strange Horizons, May 8, 2017)

[Autistic author] A poem about a monster-slaying, Beowulf-like hero who is gradually becoming monstrous himself. There’s a lot of play with sound, rhyme, rhythm and alliteration in this poem; I would recommend reading it aloud. The descriptions of monsters and violence are visceral without becoming gratuitous, and the ending is well done. [Recommended-2]

Everything Is True: A Non-Neurotypical Experience With Fiction

Uncanny Magazine is Kickstarting Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, and they were kind enough to solicit a personal essay from me. The essay is up now as part of the Kickstarter campaign, and will also appear in the Destroy Science Fiction issue itself.

For the last few weeks, it’s been crunch time in one of my most important projects at school, which means I’ve had very little time to devote to promoting this Kickstarter as it deserves. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t seem that they need my help; the project is already funded, and they are working on stretch goals. Still, if you haven’t seen the Kickstarter already, I would advise you to check it out and donate if you can. Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction is something I’ve wanted to see since the Destroy series first started, and I know it’s in good hands with Uncanny’s editors.

Personal essays are whole different ball game from stories, poetry, or book reviews. I found this one rather difficult to write. I’m still not sure to what extent it hangs together and to what extent it’s just a bunch of rambling about my childhood and the nature of reality. Still, I’m really pleased by the response I am seeing on Twitter and elsewhere; hopefully it will continue to be enlightening for some and helpful for others.