Autistic Book Party, Episode 56: Ghost in the Machine

Today’s Book: “Ghost in the Machine” by C.E. Kilgore

The Plot: Orynn, a Vesparian – a member of a powerful, secretive race of empaths – falls in love with an android named Ethan, while the two of them are assigned to a diplomatic mission in space.

Autistic Character(s): The author.

I’ve been noticing (partly thanks to some intrepid commenters!) that although I have my mainstay favorite autistic SFF authors, most of whom are traditionally published, there’s also a lot going on with autistic SFF in the indie publishing world. And while I’ve read and recommended self-published books before (including “Failure to Communicate,” my first and so-far-only Highly Recommended novel), I’m often only barely aware of what goes on in that side of the industry. Plus I was looking for a happier read, so I decided this time around to branch out into something much less familiar to me – an indie SF romance. I listed several speculative romance options for my Patreon backers, and this was the one that generated the most interest, so I gave it a try.

In “Ghost in the Machine” we meet our heroine, Orynn, who is a complex, multifaceted character and easily my favorite person in the book. Young by Vesparian standards, caring and in many ways unsure of herself, Orynn is bound by a set of strict cultural rules aimed at keeping her people safe, including the requirement that she erase herself from non-Vesparians’ memories after working with them. In some ways, she is fabulously powerful, able to influence and command the minds of everyone around her and to disguise herself effortlessly, taking on an endless series of contrasting cover identities. In other ways, she is very fragile – both emotionally and physically, as she requires hidden assistive technology even to deal with the gravity that humans and other races consider normal.

Most of all, Orynn is afraid of the consequences of her power, which can be used very destructively if she lashes out and loses control, and which can also be a security risk for other Vesparians; part of the reason why they’re so secretive is because they were brutally enslaved and used as weapons in the past. But the requirement that no non-Vesparian should ever remember her weighs heavily on Orynn:

At almost two hundred years of age, Orynn was still considered young by her people’s standards, and so her lapse in emotional control from time to time had to be expected. It wasn’t the real reason Tersai was having second thoughts about taking her on the mission, and Orynn knew it. The largest concern, or rather the largest disappointment, continued to be Orynn’s desire to exist.

Vesparians are so secretive that the word “exist” has a special meaning for them – meaning, roughly, to have a prolonged acknowledged presence in the minds of non-Vesparians, without being disguised as a member of some other race – and is forbidden.

Orynn isn’t an autistic character, but she’s a kind of escapist fantasy that I think will appeal to many autistic women. Many of us can relate to being social chameleons, or to being hyperempathic and very aware of others’ cues, and Orynn has both those abilities to a deliciously exaggerated degree. Her fragility and vulnerability, behind her many public faces, is equally relatable. Many of us know well what it feels like to be afraid of what we’ll do if we melt down, or to worry that in some sense we aren’t real people the way everyone else is. Orynn carries an exaggerated, escapist version of these fears as well, and all in all she feels like a romantic heroine designed for us.

I was less thoroughly won over by Ethan, the android (or Mecha, as they’re called in Kilgore’s universe). He’s all right; he’s intelligent and has a wry sense of humor. Although the back cover copy makes it sound otherwise, Ethan is already capable of a basic range of emotions when the story begins. We see him amused, annoyed, fond of his friends, fearful, even angry; many Mecha are capable of these things, although Ethan is particularly “evolved.” He is also sexually active, having a long string of casual encounters with random women who are sexually curious about Mecha. But he’s never been sexually or emotionally attracted to anyone before, and his feelings for Orynn are so incomprehensible to him that at first he mistakes them for her having somehow empathically tampered with him.

I’m not aromantic, but I know the trope of an android learning to love can be problematic for aro readers, especially if romantic love is somehow privileged or separated from other emotions. Ethan’s arc doesn’t lean very hard (as far as I could tell) into the worst aspects of this trope, but it still is this trope at its heart, and it doesn’t subvert the trope’s potentially acephobic traits, nor does the book ever show self-awareness by pointing out that ace/aro orientations exist in humans or that they are okay ways to be. (It’s also very much not a story arc about demisexuality/demiromanticism, as Ethan’s feelings for Orynn appear very suddenly and at a time when he doesn’t know her well.)

The story’s romantic arc in general feels a bit overwrought to me, piling up every possible reason for the characters to be anguished about themselves and each other at once, and often not addressing or resolving those reasons well. And as soon as the largest of those reasons are at least somewhat resolved, both characters leap quickly into a very extreme level of romantic commitment to each other. I know instant lifelong commitment is a trope some romance readers really enjoy, but it’s one of my least favorites and I wasn’t super happy with it.

Speaking of romance and tropes, I’m only a casual reader of romance, but I know there are fairly strong expectations in romance about happy endings. I was startled to discover that “Ghost in the Machine” lacks one. It’s the first in a series, and even after Orynn and Ethan romantically commit to each other, the book manages to partially undo that and to end on a very anguished cliffhanger.

There were a few other things I didn’t like, including some moments of casual misogyny and slutshaming that go unchallenged, and a very tropey physically disabled villain who is introduced at the last minute.

Overall, this book didn’t really work for me, but I’m glad I met Orynn. If you like romantic space opera with lots of feels, and you’re not bothered by the tropes I complained about here, then you might try it out.

The Verdict: YMMV

Disclosure: I have never interacted with C.E. Kilgore. I obtained an ecopy of this book by “buying” it from Amazon (in quotes because it was being offered there for free).

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